women from Maasai tribe carrying water, Kenya, East Africa
Women from Maasai tribe in Kenya carrying water.

How do we build an aid worker register to prevent sexual abuse?

The safe recruitment of international development and humanitarian workers can be a significant challenge.

Staff are often deployed at short notice and for short periods of time, making it difficult to verify the employment history of local and international staff, volunteers, agency workers, contractors or consultants, across different countries.

Since 2019, a multi-agency steering group from across the aid sector has collaborated on an “aid worker registration scheme”, after commitments made at the DFID Safeguarding Summit in October 2018. The scheme aims to provide a trusted, portable register of someone’s employment history.

This register would prevent perpetrators of sexual exploitation, abuse or harassment (SEAH) from falsifying their work history or lying about their identity, which could stop them from moving between organisations undetected. The scheme could play an important role in strengthening the employment cycle in the aid sector and preventing sexual exploitation, abuse or harassment.

The steering group commissioned a legal review into the scheme, which produced four recommendations, which could have a fundamental impact on how organisations operate.

Recommendations for the scheme

The review recommends that donors should make it mandatory for NGOs and private sector organisations receiving funding to register basic details of anyone involved in the delivery of aid or development projects on a new central biometric register.

This basic data would contain information about work history and identity, including: biometric identity of person registered, passport details, employing organisation, place of employment, duration of employment and a verified point of contact within the organisation.

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The review argues that self-regulation has failed, so the scheme can only be effective and comprehensive if mandated by donors. But the review doesn’t address key questions that could help organisations better understand how it could work in practice.

How will the scheme be funded?

The review doesn’t specify how the scheme should be funded, and whether it would cost aid agencies or individuals. If aid agencies are to pay for individuals or pay subscription fees, there will be concerns around proportionality and scale. If individuals are expected to cover costs of their own registration, the sector could price out those unable to afford it.

At a time of financial uncertainty for the aid sector, this could put a further strain on organisations and individuals already struggling to cope.

Who would the scheme apply to?

The scheme needs to be comprehensive to be effective. The more people who are part of it, the greater the chance organisations will recruit staff with a verified employment history.

But the review lacks detail on how it would work in practice. For example, would the scheme also apply to volunteers, contractors or consultants? Would it apply to new staff, or would existing staff be registered retrospectively? How could it be implemented under different data protection laws, or in different jurisdictions? If it aims to apply to everyone, staff and non-staff, how could organisations “impose” the scheme on individuals, for example, against their will or on those whose primary work is not in the aid sector?

Will we see a more exclusive sector?

This is a longer-term question. As more individuals from within the sector are registered and get a verified employment record, would organisations see those from outside the sector – who don’t have an employment record, or who worked outside the sector for a period of time – as “riskier” hires? As organisations reflect on staff diversity and inclusion, could this scheme lead to an even more exclusive sector?

Have your say

The scheme is currently under consultation. This is an opportunity to highlight your concerns and help make the scheme the useful tool it could be in the prevention of SEAH. Feedback is open until 30 July. You can share your feedback with us to share with DFID by emailing [email protected] or submit directly to DFID.