Safeguarding: giving evidence to the IDC and going forward

17 May 2018

Last week Bond provided evidence to the International Development Committee (IDC) as part of their inquiry into sexual exploitation in the aid sector. This was an opportunity to update the committee on the firm action Bond and our members are taking to improve the sector’s approach to safeguarding.

As a sector we understand and share the public’s disappointment and concern which is why, since the Safeguarding Summit, hosted by the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Charity Commission, Bond and our members have taken definitive action to eradicate these unacceptable and deplorable abuses of power. We must aim to stamp out sexual exploitation and abuse, while recognising the complex and often cultural aspects to this challenge.

It goes without saying that the vast majority of workers in the development and humanitarian sector are selfless, skilled and committed humanitarians, working tirelessly to improve the lives of the people they support around the world. But trust in our sector has been rocked to the core by the recent revelations. The sector accepts that it has not done enough over the last 20 years to protect beneficiaries and staff, despite the efforts within most organisations to introduce codes of conduct, raise internal awareness and train staff since abuse by some aid workers in West Africa came to light in 2002 and 2003. 

It’s increasingly apparent that abuse, bullying, harassment and exploitation takes many guises but fundamentally the root causes are the same – they stem from an abuse of power and status.  What these revelations show is that if we are to ensure the safety and security of those we seek to help, our staff and our volunteers, we need to put them at the heart of our solutions.

The sector is taking serious action. Since the Safeguarding Summit, Bond has convened four working groups drawn from our membership, to investigate the issues of accountability, organisational culture, employment practice and reporting.  These groups have recently shared draft reports with Bond members for feedback and we have since met with the secretary of state and DFID, together with a panel of experts, to determine the most practical and effective solutions for safeguarding. 

Bond will also survey its members to get a better understanding of how safeguarding is resourced across the sector and to help us understand your needs. Many of the smaller agencies face real challenges in committing resources to this work, particularly in the context of other priority areas such as fraud, bribery and security - let alone ensuring as much of money being donated goes directly towards delivering and evaluating the work that can bring about real change. Donors must recognise the real cost of safeguarding, and other due diligence management – as well as the price when this is not done effectively - when they try to reduce overhead or administrative costs and consider what actually represents value for money.

We must all become safeguarding organisations, ones in which our leadership and governance prioritises safeguarding in the delivery of all our work. But we also need to be realistic. The nature of our work, the diversity of our workforce and the insecure contexts we work in means that we have very specific and very challenging problems to overcome, particularly in a humanitarian crisis. It is critical that that staff have confidence in their organisation’s safeguarding policies, procedures and practices, that concerns are raised and listened to, cases investigated and perpetrators dealt with properly. 

With a changed culture, greater transparency and better processes and protection, we should expect more cases to come to light – at least in the near future – just as we have seen in other sectors working with vulnerable people which have gone through this critical process.  So an increase in reported cases will paradoxically be an indication that we are successfully addressing both safeguarding and respect in the workplace issues properly.

Some quick and highly visible solutions have been proposed, but these need to be considered carefully by safeguarding experts before we commit to actions to ensure they are workable and have the desired impact.  This is the task that Bond’s safeguarding working groups are now leading, linking up with other groups in the domestic charity sector. 

There is never one magic bullet. We need collective, sustained work over the long term to change cultures and address underlying issues of inequality and power imbalances. This is how we will ultimately achieve sustainable transformational change within the sector and beyond that protects people from abuse and holds abusers to account. 

Bond welcomes the effort that the International Development Committee is putting into this inquiry, and looks forward to their report due later this year.

Find out more about our work on safeguarding.