Politics

NZ aid allegations ‘may damage trust’

Allegations of sexual offending involving a New Zealand-funded aid project have the potential to break the trust of communities that rely upon their support, an aid expert has warned.

This week, Newsroom revealed that NGOs and foreign affairs officials had been forced to review their aid projects after allegations of sexual offending by a local employee on a New Zealand-funded initiative in Vanuatu.

Terence Wood, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s Development Policy Centre who previously worked on New Zealand’s aid programme, said the incident showed the country was not immune from the problems which had hit projects being run by other countries.

“It’s definitely concerning, but it’s worth putting it in perspective insomuch as that this sort of harassment obviously occurs in all industries.

"We’d like to think the aid world would be more pure but as we’ve discovered through a range of different incidents over recent years, it isn’t.”

“Trust is an essential ingredient in good aid, and if it’s broken then you’re going to find it much harder to work in a country or in a community.”

Incidents involving the exploitation of vulnerable communities by aid workers had the potential to damage future work in the affected areas, Wood said.

“Trust is an essential ingredient in good aid, and if it’s broken then you’re going to find it much harder to work in a country or in a community.”

Wood said the fact that aid work took place overseas meant it was more opaque, which put an added duty on donors on NGOs to make sure they were on top of oversight and safety issues.

A number of recent scandals, including the use of prostitutes in Haiti by Oxfam workers, had “hammered home” the importance of safeguarding work, he said.

“The only way you can even prevent this from occurring is by having some good safeguards in place, and I think the sector was probably lax on this say 10 years ago. There have been some concerted efforts to make things better which is encouraging, [but] I don’t think the problem’s solved yet.”

'Enduring' relationships key

While the offending in Vanuatu was carried out by an employee of an in-country partner, Wood said the major aid scandals overseas had not involved local partners.

“We don’t want to leap to the conclusion that it’s local partners who are always to blame: however, it is true that your partners on the ground ... may be in a better position to hide things from you than would be the case if you were working in Lower Hutt.”

Building “enduring relationships” with local partners would help NGOs to better assess the individuals and organisations they were working with, he said.

National foreign affairs spokesman Todd McClay said news of the alleged offending was concerning, and the Government and MFAT needed to investigate the issue thoroughly.

“Ultimately we want to make sure that we have rules in place to make sure when we have people working for us overseas, those that they’re meant to be helping are safe.”

"I would hope that the Government gets MFAT to look at their procedures to make sure that they are fit-for-purpose and that those we are out helping with taxpayers’ money are as safe as they can be.”

McClay said New Zealand had to “be careful that we don’t sacrifice the standards we have” at home when working on overseas aid projects.

“It’s incumbent upon the Government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to give the public every assurance that they’re taking this seriously - so far I’ve not seen anything that suggests that they’re not, but would hope that the Government gets MFAT to look at their procedures to make sure that they are fit-for-purpose and that those we are out helping with taxpayers’ money are as safe as they can be.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had received only a short briefing on the case, but said the Government had “an expectation where there is any aid funding that individuals are upholding the law”.

MFAT has said it has “zero tolerance for any sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment”, and continued to work with its aid partners to ensure there were robust systems in place.

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