Nabila Nasir was encouraged to “trust the system” when she reported sexual harassment by a colleague to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. But it was the system that she felt failed her.
In the past three years, the development sector has needed to look inward on how it responds to allegations of sexual misconduct. The Oxfam sexual misconduct in Haiti and broader #MeToo and #AidToo movements have encouraged the transition from a focus on child safeguarding to broader safeguarding — including supporting internal harassment and sexual harassment investigations.
“The focus shifted in because the sector has woken up to the levels of harassment within the development and humanitarian sector — particularly as a result of whistleblower cases that have emerged,” Richard Powell, director at Safe For Children, explained to Devex.
“Agencies that have looked at their approach have been surprised and shocked when they grasp the levels of harassment and sexual harassment in their own organizations.”
New reporting and investigation standards have been implemented to better respond to harassment. But as part of these processes, there remain gaps that result in victims such as Nasir feeling unprotected — including the inability of the victim to access the investigations due to privacy concerns.
“I find that extraordinary,” David Wells, associate professor with the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, told Devex.
“In a court case, the complainant can hear and see everything, and can challenge it. How do [victims of sexual misconduct] even know what is in the report? How do they know the veracity of what is in the report? Isn’t it their right?”
The investigation process
Independent investigators are called in when an organization receives serious reports of harassment and abuse — including United Nations agencies, large Geneva-based international offices, international NGOs, and local NGOs. The overall approach to investigations involving safeguarding allegations is similar between agencies.
In the process of responding to reports, safeguarding consultant Lucy Heaven Taylor explained to Devex that it is important that there is a clear procedure with specifically assigned staff members who have been trained in their role.
“This includes how to assess reports as they come in, and how to decide and implement next steps, for example knowing what should be reported to the authorities where safe to do so, and when an investigation is required,” she said.
“What is upsetting is when you do a review and a couple years after an event, speak to the victim — and they say that if they knew what it was going to be like, they wouldn’t have reported.”— Richard Powell, director, Safe For Children
If there is a system in place, an agency can conduct an initial triage which assesses how serious the allegation is — including whether the allegation is potentially a breach of the organization’s policies or an illegal activity.
In case of serious allegations, a committee or incident management group is given the authority to run an investigation, Safe for Children’s Powell said. “Managers would be charged with bringing together a team of investigators looking at issues of gender balance, local knowledge, and more. They will also set the terms of reference for the investigation — which is the crucial bit as far as I am concerned. If those terms of reference are not strong enough, it impacts the entire investigation,” he said.
Increasingly, agencies are establishing investigation teams that cover a range of high-risk areas. “It’s not uncommon for an agency to have a team that look at fraud, corruption, sexual harassment, and other safeguarding,” Powell said.
“There are strengths and weaknesses to that — you can have people coming from a legal or audit background, but on sexual harassment and child safeguarding cases there are specific things in terms of investigations that are significantly different.”
As part of the investigation, establishing the standard of proof required is critical in guiding investigators.
“This isn’t a criminal matter, this isn’t a statutory matter, and so the general standard of proof would be on the balance of probability,” Powell said. “Is this thing more likely to have happened, or not? Generally speaking, that is the standard of proof required.”
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Where an agency does not identify this, the investigation can become extremely difficult — especially in sexual harassment cases which don’t often happen in plain sight, he said. “They tend to be quite private matters, so the balance of probability is important to get clear in those cases where — on the face of it — is one person’s word against another.”
Part of the problem, Powell explained, is that in one to one cases, people haven’t been trained to look for partially corroborating information. “If you are going to apply a good investigative approach, you would look at timelines, locations, and the chronology of things as well as corroborating witnesses. Anything that partially corroborates needs to be given weight in the investigation.”
How consistent somebody is, the credibility of what they are saying, their demeanor, motivation, and observed impact on behavior are among the partially corroborating pieces of information that need to be considered.
“There is an awful lot there to investigate — even in cases that appear a one to one type case,” Powell said. “But I’m not convinced it always is done.”
The investigation report and disciplinary action
There are three broad categories for an outcome of the investigation — a substantiated report based on the information gathered; not substantiated based on the information gathered; and not substantiated where there is failure to find information one way or another.
“Safeguarding and sexual harassment standards are often seen as a cultural imposition from head office.”— Lucy Heaven Taylor, safeguarding consultant
The report and the findings will include the outcome, and may include recommendations for disciplinary action, when it is presented to the management team that will decide the final outcome. And this could be very different to what the investigator expects.
“There are cases where the disciplinary process has not agreed with the investigation,” Powell said. “It may well be that they have given weight to something differently, so the decision-makers will be at liberty to go against the findings of the investigation in terms of next steps.” The investigator wouldn’t necessarily be made aware of this outcome.
One of the reasons for an outcome being different to the investigation findings, Powell said, is that the organization may decide the case is not strong because they fear an appeal based on labor law.
“That is one of the concerns I have — even if the agency starts off with applying a balance of probability, when it comes beyond the investigation stage to the disciplinary or on appeals stage, lawyers will then tell the agency it is not beyond all reasonable doubt because there is not enough corroborating information.”
In some cases, it can take a long time before the victim receives information on the outcome. “They are very simple investigations — they don’t need months and months,” Wells explained. And the information provided is limited.
Wells would instead like to turn it around the other way and suggest that failure to allow victims the ability to access reports damages the integrity of the investigation because they are unable to confirm its truthfulness.
“It would also allow some degree of understanding and some sort of a process to ensure that everything that could be done was done,” he said. “So, in short, we have no comfort around the veracity by being unable to see the report.”
The challenges of field offices
Within field offices, response to sexual harassment and abuse allegations can become more challenging if policies are not communicated in a way that ensures staff are clear on their intent — and are supportive of the approaches.
“Safeguarding and sexual harassment standards are often seen as a cultural imposition from head office,” Heaven Taylor explained to Devex. “However, exploitation, harassment, and abuse — be it sexual, physical or emotional — is an abuse of power which happens everywhere.”
Communicating policies in local languages and contexts is critical. Megan Nobert, director of safeguarding at the International Rescue Committee, said that supporting field offices, systems, structures, training, and open discussions must be included as an essential part of day-to-day operations, “rather than a reaction to a specific occurrence or incident.
“The worst time to have to consider how we’re going to respond or provide support to a survivor is after they have come forward.”
“The other essential element is asking those who will be the ones potentially reporting incidents how these systems and structures should be set up and what avenues they are most likely to use,” Nobert added. This, she said, is necessary to make them feel safe, to build trust, and to best prevent potential safeguarding violations. Localized and contextually appropriate reporting systems can be built with this knowledge.
Ensuring that field offices have the capacity to respond to reports of harassment and abuse is also important, Heaven Taylor said. “For field offices with less capacity, we need to transfer resources to them,” she said.
“That means investing in both financial support and capacity building for staff to be able to deliver safeguarding in a meaningful way rather than a compliance exercise — which might well mean a long-term commitment.”
The impact for the victim
In his three years of investigating cases of sexual harassment and identifying the challenges in reporting systems, Powell said there is still much more work to be done.
“The tide comes in and out,” he said. “What is upsetting is when you do a review and a couple years after an event, speak to the victim — and they say that if they knew what it was going to be like, they wouldn’t have reported. This occurs despite agencies taking serious efforts to encourage reporting.”
The timeliness and lack of transparency in decision-making — which Powell said is sometimes for valid reasons — can lead to a loss of confidence in the systems. “If people don’t see a successful conclusion, then it is very easy to lose the trust,” he said.
He warned that this could lead to more victims finding the process of reporting harassment as victimizing as the harassment itself, which in turn leads to a working environment that does not make its staff feel safe — just as Nasir experienced.