Volunteers and staff at a British charity that receives millions of pounds in taxpayers’ money to work in developing countries have been accused of a catalogue of abuses, including inappropriate relationships with school pupils they were teaching.
Restless Development, which runs youth-led community projects, has been accused of “systemic” neglect and a dereliction of duty while also putting a number of volunteers’ lives at risk.
Since 2012, the charity has faced 35 formal complaints, five of which detail allegations of sexual misconduct. But neither the Department for International Development (Dfid), which has provided the charity with £6m in funding over the past three years, nor the Charity Commission were made aware of the allegations uncovered by The Independent until two months ago.
Despite the revelations, Dfid said it would continue to fund Restless Development.
The allegations come in the wake of the Oxfam scandal – in which the organisation covered up predatory sexual behaviour following the Haiti earthquake – and subsequent criticism of the charity sector’s lack of transparency.
The latest accusations are specific to Restless Development’s operations under the International Citizen Service (ICS) – a government-funded programme which offers overseas placements, typically three months long, for 18- to 25-year-olds. Working in countries including South Africa, Tanzania and Bangladesh, ICS volunteers help set up schools, improve access to safe water and educate locals on health and hygiene.
But young British people who volunteered in South Africa in 2012 and 2016 – after raising £800 of funding themselves – claim staff and other volunteers were involved in sexual relationships. They also said they were forced to stay in unsafe living quarters, told to travel with drunk drivers, and exposed to “unprecedented” violence between feuding taxi gangs.
Those who raised the alarm say management dismissed their concerns and “swept them under the carpet”.
In 2016, two male volunteers in Libode, South Africa, allegedly engaged in relationships with female pupils they had been teaching in an ICS-associated school.
Restless Development was made aware of the incident only when its London office was alerted by a British volunteer’s parent. The charity admitted the students involved were taken back to the volunteers’ host homes, but claimed no sexual activity took place and said the pupils were over the age of consent. The two male volunteers were subsequently dismissed.
During the same placement – which was based in three towns in south-east South Africa – it was also alleged a team leader had relationships with a string of volunteers, breaching the charity’s code of conduct.
A staff member was additionally accused of sexual relations with a female British volunteer, while a field officer reportedly asked volunteers for money so she could buy alcohol. When not working in the community, volunteers are alleged to have repeatedly left their host homes to get drunk – despite being warned the area was dangerous
Restless Development denies the allegations of sexual misconduct.
In a private recommendation report commissioned by the charity, seen by The Independent, Restless Development admitted a “number [of] incidents” pertaining to misconduct in 2016 “did not reach the management team in South Africa”. It added: “This indicates that there is improvement needed in identifying, communicating and managing misconduct amongst the field staff.”
Some 21 complaints against Restless Development concerned safety issues.
In 2012, volunteers in South Africa were forced to stay in accommodation that had been broken into, with windows left smashed, despite reporting the incident to the charity and police. Restless Development said it subsequently strengthened its security protocols.
Four years later, safety concerns were raised again – this time relating to dangerous transportation in Libode. Volunteers were expected to travel in taxis involved in violent feuds between rival drivers that saw a number of fatal shootings in the area. Volunteers said they were not told in advance about the risks. On two separate occasions, they were allegedly told to travel with a drunk taxi driver, though the charity says the issue was “resolved” at the time.
Restless Development said “immediate action” was taken to address the “unprecedented” violence between taxi drivers and subsequently decided to stop bringing volunteers to the area.
One British volunteer who worked in the charity’s Tanzanian office told The Independent that safety in general is a concern across the entire ICS programme – despite the mitigations put in place.
Volunteers from 2016 also claim their concerns were dismissed by senior staff in South Africa, who put complaints down to a “failure to adapt” to circumstances. The volunteers said grievances were repeatedly “brushed under the carpet” and insist the London head office was alerted only to the most serious incidents.
Issues with handling of complaints were not restricted to South Africa – one volunteer in Zambia “felt that volunteers were encouraged by staff to keep incidents to themselves so as to not scare the other volunteers”.
Restless Development said it has phone lines set up in London and overseas specifically for volunteers to report concerns.
But a former Youth Stops AIDS (YSA) employee who worked with Restless Development’s London team accused the organisation’s head office of “a lack of professionalism” and said they were not surprised by the allegations.
A former UN employee echoed a similar sentiment, saying that the complaints made against Restless Development are not uncommon within international development.
“Similar abuses occur in international development, some of which I, unfortunately, observed although to a much lesser degree,” he said. “The cases vary from minor abuse of authority to outright harassment.”
Vicky Browning, CEO of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, admitted it was impossible to eradicate the sort of incidents seen in South Africa under Restless Development.
“Sadly we cannot guarantee zero incidents,” she said. “What we can do is make sure there is zero tolerance. We will not accept or allow it, we will not hide it – and we will deal with it.”
The ICS scheme, which has provided placements for more than 17,000 British volunteers since it began in 2012, received £145m from the government – 90 per cent of its budget – between 2011 and 2018. Separately, Dfid has provided Restless Development with £6,392,267 over the past three financial years.
Having been alerted in July to the allegations uncovered by The Independent, the Charity Commission said the “safeguarding related incident in South Africa in 2016” is now “being considered as part of our wider assessment to ensure that appropriate action has been taken.”
Restless Development, however, claims it found no evidence to support any allegations of sexual misconduct. It said a “small number of volunteers” were disciplined for alcohol consumption, while an intern field officer who asked for money for alcohol was dismissed for inappropriate behaviour. On accusations of a lack of professionalism, it said: “Professionalism is built into our work and our values, and they are core to who we are and what we do.”
Dfid said: “Volunteer safety and security is the first priority for Dfid, VSO [which leads the scheme] and the entire ICS consortium.”