Safeguarding inquiry: progress, challenges and opportunities

8 May 2019

This week, we as a sector provided evidence to the UK’s International Development Committee (IDC) as part of their follow up to the inquiry into sexual exploitation in the aid sector. This session was an opportunity to take stock of our progress since the October 2018 Safeguarding Summit. 

Frances Longley, chief executive officer of Amref Health Africa UK and co-chair of the Bond safeguarding working group on leadership and organisational culture, spoke on behalf on the NGO sector. She provided an update on the firm action Bond and its members are taking to improve the sector’s approach to eradicating sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment and unacceptable abuses of power.

Progress and action

Bond welcomes the continued support and leadership the Department for International Development (DFID) has shown on the safeguarding agenda, and since April last year, Bond and the working groups worked closely with DFID to identify and prioritise specific pieces of work for each group to deliver. Bond has convened these working groups to take practical steps towards better practice on issues of accountability, organisational culture, employment practice and reporting and complaints mechanisms. 

The groups have come together at meetings over 30 times in the last year. We have made significant progress on the various work streams underway:

  • We adopted a principle on safeguarding and the sector’s commitments to change in safeguarding in the Bond Charter, which our over 400+ members signed up to 
  • We identified indicators of an effective safeguarding culture and are creating a tool to support leaders to develop a positive safeguarding culture in their own organisations*
  • We have published guidance on safeguarding and good governance for boards of trustees*
  • We published a report, Eight principles for building trust through feedback, which identifies key principles for designing and running accountable feedback mechanisms that can surface safeguarding concerns
  • We are working together across the NGO sector to develop common approaches to safer recruitment and detailed references
  • We are working with DFID on the development of a reporting and complaints toolkit, which helps organisations handle reports and complaints*
  • We have also seen a collective increase in levels of civil society organisations reporting to the Charity Commission – a clear indication that our efforts to improve reporting mechanisms are working. 

Alongside this, individual organisations across the sector have taken significant steps to review and strengthen their own policies, procedures and cultures in relation to safeguarding. Bond has supported and encouraged this work through training, resource-sharing and sessions at the Bond Annual Conference in March.

Challenges and opportunities 

The IDC asked for further clarification on why the working group felt that a specific audit of whistleblowing practices was not needed. 

Whistleblowing is a key component of an effective suite of reporting and accountability tools we’re developing, and is one of a number of mechanisms by which NGOs receive or manage reports or complaints. Whistleblowing mechanisms exist for instances when established reporting mechanisms fail and work as a last resort if reporting by the survivor or victim has failed. They are not a substitute for effective reporting mechanisms embedded in organisational cultures which have safeguarding at their core. 

This is a comprehensive approach to strengthening reporting and accountability. Our approach improves how we work with beneficiaries and communities to develop reporting and complaints mechanisms that work for them and in their contexts.

We recognise that these activities are just the first steps towards improved practice. In discussion across the sector and with DFID, these activities were deemed the most practical and effective rapid actions for safeguarding. They were decided in the lead up to last October’s Safeguarding Summit, a fixed milestone for initial progress which informed the prioritisation of tasks and resources. The summit was not an end point and work has continued for the working groups in the intervening months, and is still ongoing. 

It’s clear that the sector can take the lead and make progress towards shifting organisational culture, ensuring a survivor-centred approach to safeguarding, and pushing for better leadership on this issue. However, the past year has demonstrated where the limitations are. 

Civil society alone can’t make some of the bigger legal, systemic, global changes required. These will need to be led by the UK government in coordination with multilaterals, civil society organisations, and the private sector.

DFID should take an even bolder approach to safeguarding and apply the same standards and expectations to all of the different organisations they work with, whether they are NGOs, private sector companies, multilaterals or other donors. 

We will need to work collectively to ultimately achieve long-term, sustainable transformational change within the sector and beyond that protects people from abuse and holds abusers to account.

*Guidance commissioned and supported by DFID