ANALYSIS: Damage limitation aids charities on 'sex abuse' - A leaked report on alleged child abuse among aid workers prompted a damage limitation exercise among leading aid agencies last week

Tactical crisis PR work played a key role in limiting the damage to the reputation of the global aid agency community last week as claims of sexual abuse were levied against unnamed employees of Save The Children and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

In response to the claims, Medecins sans Frontieres also launched a major PR offensive, comprising both media relations and web-based information.

The objective being to underline the transparency of the organisation even if this meant admitting that its workers, too, stood accused of the sexual exploitation of refugee children.

The charity, uniquely among the 40 unnamed bodies under a cloud, opted for a policy of what head of UK comms Martin Broughton described as being 'as open as possible'. MSF took the view that this story was going to come out at some stage and it may as well seek to control coverage of itself.

This was a view shared by the main two organisations named in the claims. In fact, it was a press release from the UNHCR and STC that first alerted the media to the story. The release, detailing numerous allegations of abuse in camps in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone by aid workers and peacekeepers, was sent out following a leak of the claims in a deliberate bid to control reporting of the story and minimise the negative effect on the two bodies' reputations.

While stressing that 'the number of allegations leaves no doubt that there is a serious problem of sexual exploitation' and mentioning that 40 agencies and more than 60 individuals are among the accused, the joint report refuses to name and shame. Instead it states that allegations have so far been impossible to verify.

It isn't difficult to discover why such an awkward compromise emerged. The cover page of the report makes it quite clear when it was compiled - October to November 2001.

STC is open about the fact that the PR strategy pursued saw the report being hurriedly made public after its contents were leaked. Senior media officer Katie Brewin says a more far reaching report was originally going to be released once a full, more detailed investigation had taken place.

But she adds: 'Information got into the public domain and we felt it was right to release a summary. It's not ideal but findings like this are never going to be comfortable no matter how or when you release them.'

According to one senior NGO spokesperson, BBC staff in West Africa are believed to have been the first journalists to unearth the story. But as Audrey Gillan, who co-wrote The Guardian's front-page story with freelance Peter Moszynski, points out, 'rumours of untoward goings-on in West Africa' had been in circulation for a number of weeks. In the meantime, the whole aid sector was in danger of being tarred with allegations ranging from mild sexual harrassment to child rape.

Some agencies - such as Oxfam - have been told that none of their staff are among the accused. MSF so far is the only agency to publicly admit that members of its staff are being investigated.

Indeed, some aid PROs express surprise at how little coverage the scandal has generated. Although covered by the BBC, a cursory glance through the papers on Wednesday 27 February - the day the story broke - shows the interests of the UK media lay elsewhere. Only The Guardian considered the story important enough to put on its front page. Elsewhere it was either buried in a few paragraphs or ignored completely.

The interim report on the allegations issued to the press contains a fraction of the detail actually collected - to protect the children concerned - but it hardly pulls its punches.

It reports that a 40-day mission to the region found evidence of 'extensive sexual exploitation of refugees', with aid workers, teachers, community leaders and peacekeepers 'reportedly using the very aid and services intended to benefit the refugee population as a tool of exploitation'.

Given the nature of the allegations, Gillan says she was puzzled at the success of the PR work in ensuring the story was not followed up more energetically: 'You'd think that with the hysteria surrounding anything to do with paedophiles, this would have been much bigger.'

It works in the aid PROs' favour that logical follow-up stories, such as an attempt to discover which aid agencies and which nation's peacekeepers are among the accused, are non-starters due to libel dangers in the absence of hard evidence. As a result of this, and the PR efforts of the two principal agencies, the long-term prospects for the credibility of aid workers seem secure.

Some in the field go out of their way to dismiss concern about the good reputation of the sector. Christian Aid head of media Jon Barton says: 'Who cares about reputation in these circumstances? What's important is that we find out the full truth as quickly as possible.'

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