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NZ aid under review after sex incident

New Zealand NGOs and foreign affairs officials have been forced to review their aid projects after allegations of sexual offending by a local employee on a Kiwi-funded initiative in Vanuatu.

A New Zealand aid agency says growing collaboration with in-country NGOs on overseas projects means greater care must be taken to protect vulnerable communities.

A September 2018 briefing provided to Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said the chief executive of an unnamed New Zealand organisation had informed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of an “alleged safeguarding incident” that month, involving a staff member working with its local Vanuatu partner on an MFAT-funded project.

The man, a Solomon Islands national, had been taken into police custody after being arrested in front of the local community.

While MFAT did not have confirmed advice on what had happened, it said he had been charged with sexual indecency without consent for an incident “relating to the sending of indecent material”.

The alleged victims were members of a Vanuatu community, but given its “interconnected” nature it was possible there were other incidents involving the beneficiaries of projects funded by MFAT.

The briefing said the organisation took “immediate action” in line with its safeguarding policy, and had suspended the staff member pending his termination.

It had also engaged an international safeguarding expert to provide advice, and was looking at options to provide psychosocial and counselling services for victims within the community.

Accused worked on other aid projects

The accused staff member had worked on MFAT-funded relief operations following Solomon Islands flooding in 2014 and Cyclone Pam in 2015, although there was no evidence he had been involved in any similar incidents then.

The man had received MFAT funding to present at a development conference in Christchurch at the end of 2018, but had been stripped of the support given his suspension.

An October 30 update provided to Peters said the staff member had been charged with “acts of indecency without consent”, but had not yet appeared in court after being released on bail under supervision.

A former Kiwi detective had been hired to assist the police in Vanuatu, and had also travelled to the Solomon Islands to support “in-country partners”.

“There is potential that this safeguarding incident may not be isolated to Vanuatu, and that related incidents occurred in other Pacific Island nations.”

The update said the accused staffer had previously studied and worked on a number of other aid projects in the Pacific.

“There is potential that this safeguarding incident may not be isolated to Vanuatu, and that related incidents occurred in other Pacific Island nations.”

MFAT had written to three other NGOs where the accused had worked, with all organisations activating their own safeguarding policies and carrying out investigations.

The ministry had also reviewed the files of projects it had funded in which the accused had been, or may have been, involved, but had not found any references to issues with his conduct.

The man’s details - along with the name of the organisation which employed him and the MFAT-funded projects he had worked on - have been withheld, with Peters’ office citing the fact the case was still before the Vanuatu courts.

The Vanuatu aid worker charged with sexual offences has worked on a number of Pacific aid projects, including some funded by MFAT. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The conduct of aid workers providing assistance to vulnerable communities has been in the spotlight following a number of high-profile incidents.

British aid organisation Oxfam lost its NGO status in Haiti, after staff used prostitutes during a relief mission following the country’s 2010 earthquake.

A report from the Australian Council for International Development, commissioned following the Oxfam scandal and released last November, substantiated 31 cases of sexual misconduct involving the country’s NGOs between 2015 and 2017.

The Council for International Development (CID), the umbrella agency of New Zealand aid and development organisations, says the establishment of safeguarding policies have become an increasingly important part of its work in recent years.

Council director Josie Pagani said it had been made aware of the Vanuatu incident by the affected New Zealand organisation when it first came to light, and was satisfied with its response.

“In New Zealand as a sector, we thought, right, we’ve got to get ahead of this and understand how it is that we can guarantee zero tolerance for any incident like this, any form of abuse or misconduct - what we can’t do is guarantee zero incidents.”

“Basically we just seek assurances that any victims are out of harm’s way, has the accused been removed - and the person accused was removed immediately from their role - and have the authorities been alerted.”

Pagani said all organisations affiliated to the CID signed up to a code of conduct which required them to develop whistleblowing and complaints processes, as well as policies to prevent sexual abuse and harassment.

Following incidents overseas, the CID had carried out a number of safeguarding workshops to help organisations plan how to prevent incidents, as well as what to do if one occurred.

“In New Zealand as a sector, we thought, right, we’ve got to get ahead of this and understand how it is that we can guarantee zero tolerance for any incident like this, any form of abuse or misconduct - what we can’t do is guarantee zero incidents.”

Kiwi aid and development organisations faced challenges when they developed closer working relationships with in-country partners, who were more aware of the local community’s needs but did not have to adhere to the New Zealand organisation’s standards and legal requirements.

“These partnerships are going to happen more and more because they're the right thing to do, so therefore we have to really aware of how we protect vulnerable communities.”

“We can certainly influence as much behaviour as possible for an organisation in another country ... what we can’t do is control them because they’re not under New Zealand legislation, so we can’t actually insist on things,” Pagani said.

However, aid agencies could place safeguarding criteria in contracts with local subcontractors, as well as providing in-country training for organisations in the Pacific.

“These partnerships are going to happen more and more because they're the right thing to do, so therefore we have to be really aware of how we protect vulnerable communities.”

Pagani said MFAT had been supportive of the push for greater safeguarding efforts, helping to fund the CID workshops and creating a “safeguarding officer” role to oversee the work.

An MFAT spokeswoman said the ministry had “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.

While the accused staff member had worked on other projects funded by New Zealand, there was currently no evidence they had been involved in similar incidents.

Peters said he was "satisfied that the appropriate steps were followed", with the affected organisations taking action in line with their safeguarding policies.

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