The wave of reports about abuses perpetrated by aid sector workers in Haiti and elsewhere, including allegations of the abuse of children, should sadly come as little surprise.

International actors frequently fall into the gaps between national, regional and international law, and therefore need internal measures to ensure that they adhere to international standards. And of all the players in international interventions, NGOs perhaps need them the most.

Unlike militaries, intergovernmental organisations or even private sector actors, NGOs frequently have weak or non-existent governance structures. This extends to every part of their organisation, from recruitment all the way up to accountability mechanisms. And when locally employed staff abuse or exploit children in countries where the rule of law is weak or non-existent, there is little the organisations can to do to bring them to justice.

The solution is not to strictly curtail the aid sector’s international activities; the world would be significantly worse off without the work many of these organisations do. Instead, the sector’s practices and standards have to be brought into line so that fewer abuses occur. Above all, the people who work for NGOs need to understand what to do if they suspect or know that abuse has been perpetrated. And that can only be achieved with tough systemic reforms.

When it comes to a problem as highly charged as the abuse of vulnerable children, legal restrictions and safeguarding measures are frequently derided as plasters applied to bullet wounds, principally because they do not provide headlines to match the problems they’re designed to solve. But without them, guaranteed long-term improvements are close to impossible.

Taking responsibility

Every organisation has a responsibility to ensure that children are safeguarded from harm. They must make sure that their staff, operations, and programmes do no harm to children – that is, that they do not expose children to the risk of harm and abuse. That means they are obliged to report any safety concerns to the authorities in the communities where they’re working.

But besides abiding by local laws and measures, organisations working internationally also need to observe regional and global ones. While definitions of “child” and “child abuse” differ across nations and cultures, this is not the point. NGOs need to adhere to international standards, and to be clear that the word “children” encompasses anyone under 18, and that “abuse” encompasses all acts that harm children – intentionally or otherwise.

It is incumbent on NGOs to comprehensively map the laws and safeguarding practices that apply in the countries where they operate. There need to be consultations with staff across the organisation in order to give clear guidance on these issues and how to respond when concerns arise. Yes, child safeguarding measures must be sensitive to the local culture – but the question of who is a child and what constitutes abuse is clearly set out in global and regional standards and frameworks, and it must be applied across the board.

This means that organisations must fully vet all staff during recruitment, and make safeguarding central to those processes. Staff must be made aware of the international laws and standards to which they are expected to adhere, and the repercussions for not doing so. There must be clear lines of reporting when staff suspect abuse or when allegations are made, including to local authorities where at all possible.

These might sound like small steps, but this systematic approach has worked in tens of thousands of organisations around the world. When NGO staff know how to recruit safely, all the way through to what is expected of them if they suspect abuse, there are fewer opportunities for abusers to perpetrate crimes. No organisation can ever guarantee it is free from abuse or abusers, but any organisation must do everything it can to minimise risks and maximise accountability.

The aid sector in general suffers from a culture of opacity and silence, as opposed to transparency and openness. As it tries to change that, there’s plenty to learn from intergovernmental organisations and other international actors who’ve tried to clean up their act, and from organisations such as Keeping Children Safe, who provide safeguarding training. Rather than shouting on the sidelines about what they’ve seen happening elsewhere, everyone in the sector needs to play their part in implementing solutions that actually make a difference.