Save the Children chief accused of being part of ‘cosy boys’ club’

Rebecca Ratcliffe
Several allegations have been made about the conduct of former senior staff at Save the Children. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

The head of Save the Children, Kevin Watkins, was forced to defend his position as chief executive of the charity, amid accusations that he is part of a cosy boys’ club.

Appearing before MPs on Wednesday, Watkins said that he had been appointed chief executive following a competitive process, adding: “I don’t regard myself as part of a network.”

Save the Children has been mired in allegations that it failed to investigate claims of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour by the charity’s former chief executive, Justin Forsyth, and former policy director, Brendan Cox.

Though three complaints were made about Forsyth’s behaviour during his time at Save the Children, his next employer, the UN children’s agency Unicef, was not informed. Watkins told MPs that the charity has since reformed its process for providing staff references, and said he regretted speaking to headhunters involved in Forsyth’s recruitment to Unicef.

Three complaints were made about Justin Forsyth, the former chief executive of Save the Children. Photograph: Carmelo Imbesi/AP

Watkins was questioned about his relationship with Sir Alan Parker, the charity’s former international chair who resigned following the scandal. Appearing before the international development committee’s inquiry into sexual exploitation, which was set up in the aftermath of the Oxfam sex abuse scandal, he said he had a professional relationship with Parker.

He conceded that it was unusual to move from a board position on an NGO to become the chief executive, but said: “The reason that I served on the board was very simply that I’m passionately committed to the organisation. I resigned from the board in order to apply for the CEO position through a competitive process.”

Pauline Latham MP questioned Wakin’s decision to use £114,000 in charity funds on lawyers “to try and stop reports [of inappropriate behaviour] coming out”, adding that such money was likely to have been taken from funds raised by volunteers in the UK. Watkins said reasons for undertaking legal advice included “protecting the anonymity and the privacy of the victims in this process, preventing defamatory comments from being either printed or broadcast, preventing factually misleading and damaging material being printed or broadcast”.

The Charity Commission, which is currently investigating Save the Children’s handling of the allegations against its senior staff, will determine whether the right balance was struck, he added.

Speaking about the charity’s broader response to sexual exploitation and abuse of children in humanitarian settings, Watkins admitted the charity had failed to dedicate adequate resources to safeguarding.

Corinna Csáky, an international child development consultant, investigated the sexual abuse of children by humanitarian staff and peacekeepers in 2008 for Save the Children.

She told MPs she had found significant levels of abuse and chronic under-reporting. She added that while the report received political attention at the time “there remains the problem of a lack of implementation and resources”.

Csáky’s report found abuse was committed by local and international staff, with perpetrators targeting the most vulnerable children.

“Speaking out carries huge risks and very little gains. The lack of support provided to victims is both a problem in and of itself and a major factor putting people off coming forward,” she said.

“People feel they have no-one to turn to.”

She added that sexual abuse in humanitarian settings is not an insurmountable problem, and that there have been two decades of recommendations. “What falls down is the implementation, the funding,” Csáky added.