UK minister confronted at NGO sex scandal summit

Britain's International Development Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities Penny Mordaunt.
Britain's International Development Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities Penny Mordaunt.

Britain's International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt was heckled by an activist on Thursday as she unveiled measures to tackle the sexual exploitation scandal in the aid sector.

Hosting a "safeguarding summit" in London, Mordaunt was interrupted on stage by Alexia Pepper de Caires - a former whistleblower from Save the Children - who delivered a stinging rebuke of the gathering and the minister's reform proposals.

The humanitarian sector has been rocked by a series of sexual abuse scandals in the last decade that has included some of the biggest names in the field, such as the United Nations and Oxfam.

Mordaunt was 10 minutes into a keynote speech announcing a new online platform with Interpol to help identify suspected sexual abusers working for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) when she was interrupted.

"We do not need fancy new systems, we do not need technology - we need systematic change," De Caires said, to applause from attendees.

The activist added she was "disgusted" that Save the Children had been allowed to partner on the Interpol scheme while the NGO remained under investigation in Britain over sexual exploitation allegations against staff.

She also echoed criticism of the summit by Paula Donovan of Code Blue, a leading campaigner against sexual exploitation in the sector, who pulled out of attending over its format.

'Criticism to power' 

The summit brought together many of the world's leading aid players to discuss preventing sexual exploitation.

But the exclusion of some activists from panel discussions and the lack of a question and answer session led to accusations it was a public relations stunt.

"This is about freely giving criticism to power and I do not feel that I have seen anything from what you have been coming out with in your summit solutions to tackle that," De Caires said.

Mordaunt apologised on stage for not being aware of De Caires' concerns, and offered her a later speaking slot.

"We want to do this well," she insisted.

The minister later told reporters that Save The Children would not be receiving any new donor funding through the Department for International Development (DfID), but was included as a coordinator in the Interpol project to help NGOs like it get "in a better place".

The confrontation overshadowed a raft of DfID announcements to target predators using the aid sector as a cover to harm vulnerable people.

The Interpol project uses its existing systems to improve background checks to identify suspects trying to move between NGOs.

Named Operation Soteria after the Greek goddess of safety, it will operate from two regional hubs in Africa and Asia and increase criminal record checks and information-sharing between all 192 Interpol members.

The five-year pilot will cost £10 million (R142.41), of which Britain will contribute £2 million (R28.48 million).

Britain will also help aid agencies access specialist investigators, and in testing a new passport for workers to prove their identity, thus improving the vetting process.

"We need coordinated global action," Mordaunt said before being interrupted, describing the measures as an "unprecedented level of coordination".

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