London — The head of Save the Children called on Monday for a global screening system for the aid sector to keep sexual predators out of humanitarian operations and said Interpol should be involved.
Chief executive Kevin Watkins likened the sexual exploitation crisis which has engulfed the aid world to the 2008 financial crisis and urged charities not to bury their heads in the sand.
The aid sector has been rocked by reports that some Oxfam staff paid for sex with prostitutes in Haiti after the country's 2010 earthquake. Save the Children has also come under attack amid reports senior bosses sexually harassed staff.
"If we pretend that we are not facing a crisis of trust in our sector, we are delusional," he told the Bond International Development Conference in London - the largest meeting of aid groups since the scandal broke.
"This is our 2008 financial crisis moment. The financial crisis happened because of institutions that got too big, too confident, too exuberant, and had too much belief in their own power, who refused to look at their own organisational cultures ..."
Watkins said Britain should introduce a national screening system for charities to keep out predatory figures.
"We also have to globalise that system," he added. "And that's why we have argued that Interpol should be playing a much bigger role in that area."
Watkins said he was appalled by what he had read in the newspapers and what he had heard from some staff.
His predecessor, Justin Forsyth, resigned as deputy director of the U.N. children's agency UNICEF last week after apologising for inappropriate behaviour towards women while at Save the Children.
Watkins, who has initiated an independent review of the charity's handling of sexual misconduct complaints, said he was completely committed to fixing its problems.
"People need to ... know that if they see bad behaviour and call it out, people will listen and act on it," he added.
More than 1,000 delegates are attending the two-day conference in London.
The charity boss told them the world needed to up its game in order to meet the U.N. sustainable development goals which include a pledge by global leaders to end extreme poverty by 2030.
"We are so far off track with these targets that it is a source of embarrassment," he said, adding that in Africa alone some 147 million children will be living in poverty in 2030 on current trends.
Watkins also called for greater efforts to protect children caught up in a host of conflicts from Syria to South Sudan.
"It has become almost a badge of pride for the parties involved in these conflicts to bomb children, to abduct children, to sexually abuse children," he added.
"Ours is the generation that is sleeping at the wheel while all of the universal human rights commitments ... are being destroyed."
Despite the current sexual exploitation crisis, he said Britain was a "development superpower" which had spearheaded great anti-poverty initiatives in the past and could provide leadership in future.
Reporting by Emma Batha, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst.