Ruona Meyer (Twitter: @RGAMeyer)

Interview | Sins of the Fathers

Professor Andrew MacLeod is using DNA technology to track down, and hopefully prosecute, foreign aid workers who have sexually abused women and girls in Central and West Africa.

‘Just call me Andrew, no need to call me Prof’.

Andrew MacLeod is quick to decline any semblance of formality, when the vestiges of growing up in an African household ensure I call him ‘Professor’ three times in as many minutes into our interview.

The man currently defying the ten-hour time difference between Berlin and Melbourne to speak to me in a WhatsApp call is little known in Africa, but his work is about to change all that.

His pilot study in the Philippines has already attracted global attention, and consequences. Six children were matched to fathers from Australia, Canada, the United States and Britain. The children were fathered through sex tourism or in relation to foreign aid work. One man, a former World Bank employee, has accepted his two children, now in their 20s.

The process used to find the fathers is called genetic genealogy; it merges DNA analysis with document searches to detect family ties between individuals. Genetic genealogy is witnessing a global boom, as at least 26 million people have taken a DNA test with four leading ancestry and health databases. Most users are of Western European heritage and North American residents. Usually, the DNA tests of people who have used these companies can be compared, once their data is uploaded to a third-party database.
MacLeod was inspired by the case of the Golden State serial killer, where US police matched crime scene DNA to that from the third and fourth cousins of the murderer.
He intends to take DNA from children, then analyse the results to establish a connection, or outright match to a father. In the Philippines study, MacLeod linked one child’s DNA to two Australian brothers.

With £44,000 in new funding from the Kings Together grant hosted in International Forensics at King’s College London, UK, where Macleod is a visiting Professor, he tells me a team of geneticists and lawyers are currently working with Africa-based NGOs, identifying mothers and children who are the offspring of ‘a white western father’, and seeking consent for participation.
‘We hope to focus on the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the abuses are ongoing, particularly in the east of the country. We would also like to reach out to Liberia and possibly Sierra Leone; because the governments have both said they’ve been very grateful for UN support during the time of conflict, but have also been very vocal on the abuses that have taken place in the hands of aid workers’, he adds.
Liberia sticks out for this study in 2016, when more than half of 475 women between the ages of 18 and 30 said they had engaged in transactional sex, and a large majority of them (more than 75 percent) said they’d had such sex with UN personnel.

All DNA samples are to be collected over the next few weeks, while genealogy analysis ‘can take two to three months’, and should be concluded by April, with the team planning to present their findings in a conference in May. 

MacLeod explains that laboratory and legal costs are the main reason why only six samples will be taken.
‘It costs about 300 or 400 dollars for the DNA kit itself. Another 1500 dollars for what’s called the genetic genealogy, to track the father through the extended family members, and then to hold the fathers to account through the legal system? Well, the costs of that depend a lot on which legal system, whether the father consents or doesn’t consent, and what you have to do. This is going to be a very expensive process’.
Resolution consists of giving the child the right to know their heritage, the father claiming financial responsibility and even granting access to an international passport.

Following widespread criticism and inquiries in the UK, measures such as a global sex offenders register of aid workers, and the UN’s Clear Check system (which permits information sharing on former UN staff and UN-related personnel who have established sexual abuse-related allegation only among UN entities) have gained momentum in recent times. Yet, in November 2020, the UNHCR admitted in writing to UK lawmakers that ‘Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA) allegations often remain the most challenging to investigate in terms of evidence gathering’.
What makes MacLeod’s methods unique is that the children of abuse are the evidence, and DNA databases are crucial to making matches.

The hurdles ahead

A 2018 report from the UK parliament says ‘evidence suggests that sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) is endemic across the international aid sector, predominantly humanitarian provision. No corner of the aid sector appears to be immune: the problem is a collective one’.

Also noteworthy is the UN’s most recent ‘Sexual exploitation and Abuse: implementing a zero-tolerance policy’ annual report, dated February 2020. It shows allegations against civilians in its peacekeeping operations almost doubling, from 13 cases in 2018 to 25 in 2019. Advocates argue that at least seven of these cases were listed as ‘substantiated’, with no clear legal referrals contained in the report, and criminal prosecution of offenders, rather than administrative consequences, should be the norm. 

It’s a view shared by MacLeod, a practising lawyer in Australia and Britain who holds dual citizenship of both countries. He says the challenges he faces are mainly institutional, but also geographic: ‘As we crack down on predatory paedophiles in the developed world, these people go to the developing world, and their chosen methodology to get access to children is to join a children’s charity. We also know that the UN has been trying to cover it up from the days of the whistle-blower scandal in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, the Food-for-Sex scandal we saw in West Africa in the early 2000s. For over 20 years the UN’s response is to say they have zero tolerance to sexual abuse, yet they still prosecute almost nobody. Zero tolerance, zero action, zero response’.
The Sex-For-Aid scandal Macleod refers to indicted aid workers at refugee camps in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia from more than 40 charity organizations. Victims claimed sex was bartered for food, education, and plastic sheeting for shelter; some families reported they had to offer their young daughters to avoid starvation. Though up to 70 individuals were named, only three people were cited as sacked.

This self-imposed battle MacLeod has taken on is also gendered; whatever evidence there is, anecdotal or otherwise, points to men being the most perpetrators of SEA – ‘we know these things for sure: when there is an imbalance of power, men abuse women. And there is no greater imbalance of power than that between aid worker and aid beneficiary’.

Resistance against MacLeod’s work has also come from people who describe themselves as left-wing academic feminists fighting for children’s rights. ‘One even went as far as to say “you are a middle-class white man. You have no right to participate in this debate.” I would never have thought that a feminist fighting for the rights of children would have objected to our work’.

Other facets of gender unwittingly pop up when I say I am familiar with these incidences of abuse by aid workers by virtue of my work, and how victims’ trauma remains, even though evidence has been either wilfully destroyed, or in the case of physical scars, healed over time. MacLeod immediately interrupts with: ‘it’s interesting because when I talk to Western women they say “Really? Does this happen?” But when I talk to speak to African women, they say I have seen this with my own eyes. And that’s the problem… when it comes to sexual abuse in the aid industry, we have got lots of anecdotal evidence. We have got lots of eyewitnesses. We have very little empirical data’.

As his research team shifts focus to Africa, McLeod admits six test cases is indeed a drop in the ocean of abuse, but argues he is being circumspect because the global aid industry is holding its collective breath, and individual purse-strings.
‘What we are doing now is we are just very carefully and cautiously proving the concept. Because we know there are a lot of people in the aid industry that don’t like our work. And they don’t like our work because this is the aid industry’s dirty little secret. If people in the main streets of New York, Berlin and Sydney were to understand the scale of the problem of sexual abuse in the aid industry, people would stop donating money. So, we need to be absolutely bullet-proof academically and then we go back to NGOs and say right, you now need – as part of all of your programmes – to be doing this permanently’.

At this point, it becomes clear that the strongest aspect of MacLeod’s work, may also be a weak link: I explain to him – there has to be a pregnancy for wrongdoers to be exposed, and for the innocent children to get justice. So where does that leave the women who never got pregnant but carry these terrible scars – is this limitation of sorts something he thinks about?
It turns out it is. ‘You’re right. We are dealing with a subset of victims; females between the age of puberty and menopause who got pregnant and kept the child. That is a small proportion of victims. This does nothing for the boys. This does nothing for the girls, pre-puberty’.
He says the team is developing a self-collection rape kit for distribution so women and children will be able to self-sample, after they’ve been raped. But admits ‘that’s a long time away’.

A life in aid

In the 1990s, as one of the first cases of widespread sexual abuse that involved aid workers blew open to the extent it would later transcend headlines and enter movie theaters, MacLeod was working with the International Committee of the Red Cross in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In the years following 2002 when the Sex-For-Aid scandal broke, MacLeod was a continent away in Pakistan, working as Chief of Operations for the UN Emergency Coordination Centre.

But by 2014, when Oxfam staff were accused of sexual exploitation and abuse in Chad, and  women and girls in the Central African Republic reported sexual abuse by international peacekeepers, MacLeod, a former military officer, had left the aid industry, mainly due to ‘the out-of-control sexual abuse, particularly of children’, and written a book on the subject, in 2013.

‘In 2009 when I worked for the UN in the Philippines, I saw what a number of my colleagues were doing to local women and said I’d had enough of this. From 2009 to 2017, I spent a lot of time trying to convince governments to take this problem seriously. In 2017, when the Golden State killer case happened in the United States, I thought well if you can do that with crime scene DNA – if you’ve abused a woman or a girl, and she’s got pregnant, can you take the DNA from the resulting child, and track the father through the extended family members on publicly-available databases like 23andme? And if the mother was under 16 at the time of procreation, then you can get a criminal conviction, under what’s called the Extra-territorial Child Sex Tourism Laws. The real ‘aha!’ moment was using the DNA technology to be able to catch these predators’.

It is no coincidence that as  over 50 women accused Ebola aid workers from prominent NGOs including WHO, UNICEF, Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, World Vision and the International Organization for Migration of sexual exploitation and abuse in the Democratic Republic of Congo in late 2020, McLeod was fine tuning his current plans to expose abusers who have fathered children in the region. He also joined forces with whistle-blowers to set up Hear Their Cries, a Geneva-based charity campaigning against sexual abuse in the Aid industry.

I wonder what his former colleagues must think of him, but settle for asking him if he feels he is turning on his own? 

‘I joined the aid industry because I wanted to help the people in the most vulnerable situations in the world. And I was shocked to find the agencies that I worked with, had within them predators that were targeting very vulnerable people for abuse. Was I there to work for an agency, or was I there to help someone in need? So, I’m not turning on the people in need, but I might be turning on the agency. Now, there are some very good aid workers out there. I see three categories: there are people raping children, people covering up the rape of the children, and people trying to stop the rape of children. If you think the third one is threatening your funding, then I need to give you remedial lessons in ethics. Because if you want me to shut up, if you want me to go away there’s a very easy way to do it: stop raping children’. 

Local crimes, global repercussions

MacLeod, a world-class swimmer who bagged a silver medal for the 200 metres Butterfly at the 2002 World Masters Games, is swimming against tides of a different nature, these days. He is aiming for prosecutions from the coming cases in West and Central Africa. The main target is to not only to force international NGOs to adopt a more proactive approach towards evidence-gathering and victims, but to instil fear in the aid industry. 

‘Any criminologist will tell you that (the) size of penalty doesn’t deter crime, but fear of detection does. And right now, in the aid industry there is zero fear of detection. What I want to do is create a fear of detection. So, we’re going to prove the concept with adults, then expand it to mothers who were under the age of 16 when they got pregnant’.

‘Any criminologist will tell you that (the) size of penalty doesn’t deter crime, but fear of detection does. And right now, in the aid industry there is zero fear of detection. What I want to do is create a fear of detection. So, we’re going to prove the concept with adults, then expand it to mothers who were under the age of 16 when they got pregnant’.

Ruona Meyer is a Nigeria-born investigative journalist, based in Germany. In 2013, she was named Investigative Journalist of the year in Nigeria. Her work has been featured on the BBC, Daily Trust, This Day, Reuters and others. Meyer is also a member of the ZAM Editorial College. Twitter: @RGAMeyer