Q&A: Global Fund updates its sexual exploitation and abuse policy

The Global Fund has updated its codes of conduct to explicitly prohibit sexual abuse and exploitation. Photo by: Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has updated its codes of conduct to prohibit sexual abuse and exploitation after a report released last month detailed misconduct by a sub-subrecipient of a Global Fund grant.

The report found that executives at the Ghana Network Association of People Living With HIV, an organization that supports people living with HIV and AIDS in the country, demanded sex acts and money in exchange for access to benefits.

The report also found that “The Global Fund’s governance policy framework in relation to protection from sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment (SEAH) is inadequate” and that it was operating “without a meaningful framework to prevent, prohibit, detect, or respond to SEAH in its programs.”

Nick Jackson, ethics officer at the Global Fund, told Devex that the fund has since updated its codes of conduct to explicitly prohibit sexual abuse and exploitation and that it is now working to connect its so-called country coordinating mechanisms with sexual abuse protection networks in the nations where it operates.

After 3 years of #AidToo, the focus has shifted inward — but is that enough?

Training and policies to address sexual misconduct have improved in response to the #AidToo movement. Yet a look at the investigative process indicates that gaps still exist in ensuring the process puts the needs of victims first.

“We have to be using our voice and influence in a way that, first of all, places the survivors and victims front and center of any response but also places accountability in the country in the front line and enables and requires those organizations delivering programs to step up and deal with these things,” he said.

In a letter about the misconduct, Global Fund Executive Director Peter Sands said the organization is “not shy about tackling the difficult questions raised by this report.”

Devex spoke with Jackson about how the organization is trying to balance its country-owned organizational structure with sufficient oversight of grantees.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

One of the things highlighted by the report was that the policy framework in place was inadequate. In what ways was it inadequate?

The framework is essentially the codes of conduct, the roles and responsibilities of the various people across the organizations. … We have codes for our board, our governance officials, codes for our staff, a code of conduct for recipients of Global Fund funding, a code of conduct for members of our country coordinating mechanisms.

So they all had prohibitions around coercive practice, and they all had requirements to uphold the highest ethical standards and these things. But we weren’t specific about the specific prohibition of sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment.

What happened, in this case, was clearing abhorring, clearly prohibited by what we have. But it would have taken a small leap of interpretation to get to that. So we really wanted to become more closely aligned with the rest of the sector and say: “Look, we are going to adopt the international definition of sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, sexual harassment. We are going to update our codes to make that really, really clear.” And now we have done that.

Now that you have these clear codes of conduct around SEAH in place, how do you ensure compliance?

If you think about what the policy framework is, the codes are one thing that’s now done. But then the implementing framework behind that then comes up in terms of training, documenting the roles and responsibilities, documenting the safeguarding procedures, and also how we address that.

The Global Fund is a funding organization. So, we are about 1,000 people when we are at the office in Geneva. And we have part of our organization traveling to countries, but we don’t have country offices. We don’t have staff in countries, so all of our work is delivered through implementing partners.

These behaviors happen all over the world; no country is kind of safe from these behaviors. But in terms of addressing it, it needs to be addressed by the organization on the ground in the moment.

How has the framework changed to ensure this is possible?

In terms of our framework, we had it in our codes, but we never set out the exact approach and who was responsible for what. … I would say we had all the pieces of the jigsaw. What we weren't doing is consistently and effectively joining all of these things up.

So every case, as horrible as it is, is an opportunity to learn and to sort of get stronger. And I think what we have learned in this particular case is we have to be making sure that we are using our voice to amplify the prohibitions.

The other lesson is how do we really place the accountability in the right place but at the same time make sure that we play our role in that. As a funder, we are training all of our people. We have a plan in place to give our governance a level of training on how to govern this.

The way the Global Fund works is it's a country-owned mechanism. So countries, if they want to apply for Global Fund funding, have to create what's called a country coordinating mechanism — a CCM. And there are requirements around the representation on the CCM. That is one of the many places where oversight can happen.

One of the things we are doing is connecting CCMs to the “protection from sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment” — PSEAH — networks in-country, because the aid sector now has PSEAH networks being built in multiple countries. So we are connecting them. … That includes [connecting them with] things like referral pathways. It includes access to services for legal protection and safeguarding, etc. So what we are trying to do with the framework is connect at the country level so that they can be the first responder.

We are not, say, UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] who have country offices and have thousands and thousands of staff based in the country and have a direct staff risk. Most of our risk exists as a result of what our implementing partners are doing. … So we are really looking to work through them in terms of how they strengthen their frameworks.

As an organization that works with numerous implementing partners, is it possible to ensure that there is accountability at every stage?

As sad as it is to say, I think our framework won’t prevent this from happening again. I think what we can do is play our part and try to move the needle on this topic and move the needle as fast as we can and as robustly as we can. But at the same time, I don't think we are going to eliminate this anytime soon.

The main thing that we are doing this year, as well as kind of communicating the prohibition, is looking at risk-based assessment of our implementers’ own capacities.

So if you think of risk assessment, you have got two dimensions to it. Is the program itself inherently more risky from a safeguarding and exploitation perspective? That’s actually really hard … to say whether a sex worker peer outreach program is higher risk than a rural clinic handing out antiretrovirals. It’s very hard to differentiate whether the exploitation risk … is higher in either of those two places.

But certainly what you can look at is the capacity of the implementer themselves. Do they have the framework, do they have policies, have they trained their people, do they have a robust reporting mechanism?

So there is the Inter-Agency Standing Committee ... working group that we are participating in, and they have a capacity assessment which we are basically looking to roll out this year to see where are the implementers that would need to focus more. People don't like the word “assessment,” and they are not going to get a test at the end. But this is really about saying who needs to do more to strengthen what they are doing in this space.

What advice would you give to other organizations on how to minimize the chances of something like this happening again?

The most important thing for me is to encourage people to never ever look the other way. And I think for me, sometimes whether it's speaking up about sexual exploitation or any other topic, the most important thing an organization can do is to encourage people to come forward and encourage people to speak up and protect them when they do and have a proper due process when they do. And to be transparent is also a deterrent as well. You have to give the alleged perpetrators due process. ... You have to protect survivors. You have to protect their dignity.

But you can still say: “Look, this has happened. We have taken action. We have addressed it.” So the single most important thing is not to look the other way and to take the pain in the short term, because that’s what builds trust in the long term.

About the author

  • Rumbi Chakamba

    Rumbi Chakamba is an Associate Editor at Devex based in Botswana, who has worked with regional and international publications including News Deeply, The Zambezian, Outriders Network, and Global Sisters Report. She holds a bachelor's degree in international relations from the University of South Africa.