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Diversity is Needed to Tackle Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

The IDC has called for gender parity within aid organisations, but is it enough? Palladium's Chief Diversity Officer, Rosanna Duncan, reflects on the committee's damning report.

The UK International Development Committee (IDC) has released its Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in the Aid Sector report, for which Palladium provided evidence alongside other organisations, including private contractors like ourselves. According to the report, if sexual abuse in the aid sector is to be stopped, we will need to see real culture change within aid organisations. But this change will be very difficult to achieve, the report states, if there is no gender parity within these organisations.

While Palladium’s CEO responded to the wider report upon its release, as Chief Diversity Officer, I am encouraged to see that the committee has placed such high importance on tackling structural gender imbalances as a step in the fight to end sexual abuse. However, while increasing gender diversity in any sector is a powerful tool for bringing about culture change, to truly encourage diversity of thought and action, we need to consider diversity more broadly.

Much of the aid sector, and in particular its leadership, has traditionally been dominated by white men, often from middle-class or otherwise privileged backgrounds. Our incoming CEO, Chris Hirst, wrote about this recently for Thomson Reuters.

Very often, the women who work at the most senior levels come from the same backgrounds as their male counterparts. If our aim is to change traditional leadership structures, thereby promoting a shift in power dynamics and in culture, then we should ask ourselves whether increasing the number of senior female leaders by drawing from the same pool will really bring about the diversity necessary for a total cultural shift.

There are many barriers to overcome, but one in particular that I’d like to call out was discussed at the Global Disability Summit this month: a lack of data. The Summit emphasised the need to improve the quality, financing and availability of inclusive and disaggregated data to better understand the situation of the communities where aid organisations work. I suggest we strive toward the same data-driven understanding of the aid workforce itself.

Having better data on the aid workforce will enable the sector to take a deep-dive look at diversity and use data to more effectively, strategically and systematically tackle underrepresentation of particular groups on our own teams.

We cannot ignore, as the IDC report indicates, that under traditional leadership there has been a “reactive, patchy and sluggish" response to “endemic” sexual exploitation and abuse. A lack of diversity in the sector has led to a lack of diversity of thought, and resulted in the same actions (or inactions) being undertaken for years, with the same, sometimes tragic, results.

The committee’s call for gender parity as a lever for promoting cultural change in the sector is welcomed. But I would urge the sector to not just consider gender diversity but also diversity across a range of other characteristics, including socioeconomic background, race, disability and religion. We know that diversity brings differences of opinion and challenges to the existing norms, and this is precisely what we need if we are to turn the tide on the abuse that has been going on for decades. We have to do things differently, and bringing a diverse set of players to the table may be precisely what we need to make that happen.