After the #MeToo movement gained more and more ground and reports of sexual misconduct in the development sector multiplied, all Belgian NGOs signed an Integrity Charter. VVOB unreservedly put its signature under the text yet has always aimed high when it comes to integrity, says Chairperson Stefaan Van Mulders: “VVOB strives for quality and sustainability. If we didn’t work on a basis of integrity, we wouldn’t be able to do what we've been doing for 30+ years.”
#MeToo and the development sector
In February 2018, news got out about staff of the British branch of Oxfam in Haiti having paid Haitian women for sex during the humanitarian response to the earthquake in 2010. In the context of this devastating crisis, which killed over one hundred thousand people, the actions of the so-called aid workers are plain sexual exploitation. The organisation was also accused of having covered up the misconduct.
The media coverage of the Oxfam-scandal cleared the way for many other revelations of sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation in the development sector. In a political climate of evermore scepticism towards international cooperation, this fed into critics’ arguments against funding the aid sector. Governments and NGOs alike made their voices heard loud and clear in this false dilemma.
One powerful initiative was set up by the Belgian Minister of Development Cooperation Alexander De Croo. All 83 Belgian NGOs were expected to sign an Integrity Charter (only available in Dutch and French) that sets a bar for integrity. Examples of what the signatories commit to include:
- the development of an ethical code,
- awareness raising and trainings about integrity for staff,
- the appointment of a confidential focal point to which staff can turn for advice or reports of violations,
- the inclusion of integrity clauses in their contracts with third parties,
- a report at least once a year about violations.
The Charter thus sets a minimum threshold for ethics and integrity, which VVOB undersigned without reservations along with all other Belgian NGOs.
Integrity of policies, people and partners
For VVOB, this Integrity Charter sums up the minimum standards all development actors should live up to. But it should be interpreted as a mere starting point.
“VVOB’s policies on integrity have been around much longer, and go more in-depth”, says Stefaan Van Mulders (pictured above, left), chairperson of VVOB. “The very nature of our work, which involves direct and indirect contact with young pupils and students, demands that we go above and beyond ethically speaking. We have thorough Child Protection and Youth Protection policies in place that are an integral part of VVOB’s HR manual which all employees sign on their first day of work. We also have a policy on Human Trafficking.”
Integrity… in professional relationships and leadership. Ethics are a priority in our cooperation with each other, donors and partners. We do what is right, even when it is difficult. Sound leadership fosters this ethical environment and culture of our organisation, allowing the long-term public interest to prevail over short-term private interests. We are consistent and reliable, both as an organisation and as individuals., and we accept responsibility for our actions.
Stefaan and other members of the Board of Directors are currently in the process of setting up an ethical commission whose main responsibility will be to do background checks on potential donors. The funds VVOB receives should only come from clean sources.
“VVOB strives for quality and sustainability in making education systems effective worldwide”, Stefaan goes on. “If we didn’t strive towards this with integrity, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we do for 30+ years and reach the results we have. Quality and sustainability are dependent on integrity. For VVOB’s own sake, and that of our goals, we’ll always be vigilant for any risk to our integrity, which would essentially be a risk to our existence.”