Learn How to Conduct an Investigation into Allegations of Misconduct by Aid Workers

Emily Tullock

by Emily Tullock

Former Communications Officer at the CHS Alliance.

What would you do if you were called on to conduct an investigation into allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) made about staff or volunteers at your organisation? Unfortunately, we know that incidences of SEA, fraud and corruption by aid workers occur and, consequently, must be investigated.

Does your organisation have the capacity to investigate allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by staff or volunteers? The obligation to “do no harm” is one of our guiding principles as humanitarian and development workers. Unfortunately, we know that incidences of SEA, fraud and corruption by aid workers occur and, consequently, must be investigated.

What would you do if you were called on to conduct an investigation into allegations of SEA made about staff or volunteers at your organisation? Practice is one of the best ways to perfect a skill so how can we prepare ourselves and our colleagues to investigate allegations of serious misconduct by aid workers before we are called on to conduct a formal investigation? The issue’s sensitivity and our duty to do no further harm to the people we aim to assist requires that investigators are well-trained and professional. Earlier this year, I joined 10 others from different organisations who were preparing themselves to conduct an investigation by taking part in the closest possible imitation of the real thing: a simulated investigation with six professional actors at a CHS Alliance Investigations Training workshop in London.

Day one of the workshop gave an overview of the principles and stages of an investigation, the skills needed, and how to gather and analyse documentary evidence. Day two prepared us for the interview stage of an investigation with sessions on models of interviewing, planning and preparing for interviews, and the differences between interviewing witnesses, subjects of complaint and the complainant.

On day three, we were tasked with carrying out a simulated investigation into an allegation of sexual exploitation by a staff member. We each interviewed professional actors who played the parts of the subject of the complaint, the complainant and four witnesses. Over the day, we navigated the spectrum of personalities and emotions that one would expect in a real-life investigation: a timid witness who was unwilling to talk, a self-assured character who deflected questioning, conflicting testimonies, stories changing over interviews, and a witness who burst into tears during an interview.

Interviewing the different characters associated with an investigation was an extremely valuable learning experience that gave us the opportunity to practice our investigation skills and uncover evidence. With our investigator hats on, we then weighed up all the documentary and testimonial evidence to determine whether each allegation made in the simulation was established by reasonable inference, not established based on evidence, or not established based on insufficient or unclear evidence.

The final day of the training gave us the opportunity to reflect on what we had learned during interviewing, what we would do differently next time, and how to write an investigation report and close an investigation. We also looked at the responsibilities and challenges related to being the manager of an investigation.

Things to keep in mind when conducting an investigation

  • Remain unbiased and neutral throughout the investigation process. It can be helpful for investigators to remind themselves that “I know nothing” in order to prevent statements from other interviews influencing the course of an interview.
  • Ensure no additional harm is done during interviews with vulnerable witnesses or reputational damage to the subject of the complaint.
  • Ensure the confidentiality of the investigation by keeping information on a “need to know” basis and requesting everyone involved keeps interviews confidential.
  • Expect the unexpected during interviews and prepare for different scenarios such as a confession, unwillingness to talk, or emotional behaviour.
  • Remember that the investigator’s role is to carry out an information-gathering exercise. The investigations team makes a finding on each complaint based on the evidence. It is not the role of the investigator to assign judgement or any punitive measures.