Opinion: Turning words into action — safeguarding and NGOs

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Since news revealing sexual exploitation in Haiti and other safeguarding issues broke, the development and humanitarian sectors have been taking a long hard look at how we can prevent past mistakes from happening again. Media headlines alone would suggest that nothing has been done at all. Post 2002, when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Save the Children UK exposed the shocking levels of sexual exploitation taking place in West Africa, many measures have been introduced such as mandatory training and agreed organizational policies and practices.

But 16 years later, it’s clear that all the policies in the world are not going to make the step change needed, unless we fully embed safeguarding into organizational accountability, culture, employment cycles, and reporting.

Anyone who works for, or with, NGOs and humanitarian organizations has a role to play in stamping out exploitation from the sector. Here's how we can make this happen.

A culture of zero tolerance

The single most important way to transform our approach to safeguarding is by developing and embedding a safeguarding culture across the sector, which must be exemplified by appropriate leadership behaviors. If there is not an appropriate organizational culture, then policies, processes, and procedures will not be fully implemented and simply won’t have any impact.

A leadership charter

A leadership charter that all chief executive officers must sign and adhere to would mean this agenda is driven from the very top. It could include a set of commitments for senior leadership within humanitarian and development organizations to clarify responsibilities and the level of accountability needed around all forms of violence, exploitation, and abuse by their staff, consultants, and volunteers.

By signing a leadership charter, we could ensure CEOs are working toward increasing diversity and inclusion within senior leadership. It would also commit organizations to produce transparent annual reports that include information on safeguarding, with common standards of reporting, with both quantitative data and qualitative analysis of trends in safeguarding breaches.

Keeping culprits out of the sector

Much has been said about vetting processes, and the routes by which individuals under investigation can be recruited by other humanitarian agencies and NGOs. Much more can be done through exploring the legal aspects of referencing and self-declaration, as well as trialing new technologies such as registers based around blockchain or the role of integrity testing in circumstances where criminal records checks are unavailable.

The long-term impact of this could be hugely beneficial, but the caveat would be that some of these actions may only bear fruit in 10-15 years. Widening the scope of regulated activity in relation to Disclosure and Barring Service checks would be an immediate benefit, but we are still in a situation where reporting allegations — or not — to local law enforcement needs to be standardized across the sector. Whether some of this can be delivered through a “Safeguarding Center of Excellence” is worth exploring.

Proportionate regulation and funding

Any new measures that are introduced need to be proportionate and applicable for smaller organizations, so that they are not overwhelmed by regulation but are still able to meet high standards on safeguarding. NGOs with bigger pots of funding will inevitably be better positioned to have the best systems and process in place, but it would be detrimental to the cause if this were to mean that smaller organizations no longer qualify for funding. To mitigate this risk, donors will need to understand and appreciate the costs of safeguarding which must be factored into funding agreements.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Mike Wright

    Mike Wright is the director of membership and communications at Bond. Mike leads the team that communicates with and engages with the sector, and supports members on service development and delivery.