Safeguarding Summit: highlights and takeaways for NGOs

19 October 2018

DFID’s Safeguarding Summit brought together 500 people to commit to a “root to branch” change in how the international development sector works to prevent sexual exploitation, abuse and sexual harassment. 

The event convened NGOs, government, private sector, donors, multilaterals, beneficiaries, survivors and victims, parliamentarians and independent experts. Bond was there representing our wider membership, so we’re all part of this collective action and progress.

Here are some highlights and key takeaways from the day. 

NGO commitments 

Each sub-sector presented their commitments to drive collective action to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation, abuse and sexual harassment in the aid sector. Our commitments to change were presented by Frances Longley, CEO of Amref Health Africa and co-chair of Bond’s culture and leadership working group. 

Speaking on behalf of the NGO sector, Frances pledged we would "deliver a generational change which ensures that safeguarding, and the rights of victims and survivors, are at the heart of all that we do". She highlighted key actions that will put the 12 sector-wide commitments into practice, signalling greater consistency and quality in safeguarding across the diverse range of NGOs.

Penny Mordaunt’s speech

Secretary of state for international development, Penny Mordaunt, announced a series of initiatives, including:

  • DFID and Interpol are launching a pilot of a new system to improve background checks on aid workers.
  • UK NGOs, with support from DFID, will test a passport for aid workers.
  • A disclosure of misconduct scheme will be used across the sector, with the hope of having 100 organisations signed up by December
  • Major international donors are committed to global standards covering ethical behaviour, recruitment and complaints processes. Partners who don’t meet these standards will not receive UK aid funding.
  • The Charity Commission will introduce a standard approach to criminal reporting.
  • A new resource and support hub will be launched bringing together the latest research, guidance and training.

The secretary of state was interrupted by Alexia Pepper de Caires, whistleblower and co-founder of the feminist collective NGO Safe Space. de Caires called for systemic change rather than new systems. She expressed her objection to campaigners and victims not being given sufficient space at the event for their voices to be heard. 

In response, Mordaunt called the sector’s progress “a good step forward” and gave up her closing address to de Caires and women who have been victims of sexual abuse. At the end of the day, these women addressed the summit about their priorities and concerns.

Four takeaways for the NGO sector:

1. Putting survivors at the centre

One of the strongest messages from the summit came from powerful testimonies of women who had experienced abuse: the importance of ensuring that safeguarding responses are designed around understanding the needs of survivors. 

In practice, this means helping create a safe space for them, providing psychosocial support, listening and responding to other support needs – possibly ahead of pursuing justice for the victim and retribution for the perpetrator. Preventing incidents from happening in the first place must be a priority. But when they do happen, our responses must be guided by survivors and the support they need through the follow-up process, however long that takes.

2. Working together in a co-ordinated way

With so many sets of commitments coming from the different parts of the aid sector there is a risk of establishing new bureaucracy and competing approaches. A very strong message from the day was about joining up, so that universal good practice on, for example, referencing and vetting, or registration systems could be applied. 

This means not just NGOs in the UK working in a consistent manner, but also coordinating and harmonising where possible with the other sub-sectors represented at the summit – donors, financial institutions, the UN, the private sector and universities. While there were not many local partners at the summit, the need for in-country coordination, minimisation of duplication and consideration of resources was apparent.  It was also clear that solutions do not exist for all the problems: “We need help” was the plea from one UN representative, “please contact me”. 

3. Dealing with perpetrators

The summit had a strong emphasis on systems for limiting potential perpetrators’ access to the aid sector, and minimising the opportunities for them to circulate within the system. The secretary of state announced the much-trailed platform of global criminal records, named Soteria, after the Greek goddess of protection. This major initiative will be funded by DFID, working with Interpol and the Association of Chief Police Officers, with the NGO side being convened, somewhat controversially, by Save the Children. 

However, what the summit made clear, is that much of the behaviour that leads to serious incidents, is not, in itself of a criminal nature, or may not be criminal in particular jurisidictions. This means that any technical solutions have to be balanced by similar emphasis on transforming the leadership and cultural aspects of all organisations. 

4. More resources needed

While at one end of the scale, the creation of a safeguarding culture was seen as the sum total of a series of very small individual actions, it was also clear that substantial resources need to be put into many areas. 

These ranged from the creation of specialist investigation units, better “safe” programme design, community-based protection systems through to highly complex registration systems that require the resolution of highly challenging technical, legal and operational problems. Implementing this will require either more overt support from donors to support high quality safeguarding approaches into programming or for NGOs to divert existing resources. The choices will not be easy.  And the knock-on effects for partners should not be under-estimated. 

Going forward

The summit was described by one speaker as "a once in a lifetime opportunity" for so many actors to come together united by one issue. It could not cover the variety of situations and responses across the spectrum of safeguarding from relatively minor infringements through to the worst forms of sexual abuse of vulnerable people. Nor could it address the risks and challenges of dealing with complex cases in fragile contexts. But these caveats should not detract from the strong agreement on the core of what it meant to keep people safe and how we would collectively go about ensuring that. 

Over the coming weeks, Bond will be working out with members how to drive forward this next stage to sustain the momentum and ensure promises are translated into action, resources, collaborative solutions and accountability.

Find out more about our work in safeguarding and view our commitments to change.

About the author

Sarah Mistry
British Geriatrics Society

Sarah is chief executive of the British Geriatrics Society. She was previously director of programmes and partnerships at Bond.


Mike Wright is director of membership and communications at Bond.