By: Marian Casey-Maslen, Executive Director, CDAC Network
The aid sector is facing a crucial opportunity to upend top-down, hierarchical safeguarding systems that have masked wrongdoing and brushed aside victims of sexual exploitation and abuse. It’s the courage and persistence of the people who have come forward to report violations that has forced the humanitarian community to wake up to widespread, systemic failure to protect staff and the people they serve.
Humanitarian organisations specialise in doing good, protecting and promoting people’s rights. They hold governments, corporations and other institutions to account and are responsible for reaching and working with the most vulnerable. So what went wrong with safeguarding?
Today aid experts will gather in London to work at improving safeguarding systems and reexamine standards. Hosted by the UK Department for International Development, this global conference is, reassuringly, all about listening, listening to survivors and those who have seen first-hand how policies do not correspond to action on the ground.
Along with our members, CDAC Network will be there championing the movement to put more control in the hands of disaster-affected communities in designing inclusive humanitarian systems people can trust and that allow them to make serious complaints about assistance they receive.
Traditionally safeguarding is a word synonymous with bureaucracy. It’s an essential branch of humanitarian action that has got caught up in policy and fell down in practice. Historically, it’s been addressed top-down and from an organisation first perspective. Complaints and whistleblowing systems are in-house, often out of reach and inappropriate for staff and the people receiving aid.
Aid providers have made concerted efforts to create awareness among people accessing their services about their rights and what recourse they have to make complaints about sexual exploitation and abuse. Yet, safeguarding remains one of the most under-resourced and under-explored areas.
Along with our members, the CDAC Network is pushing for practical safeguarding systems that work bottom-up. The missing link is enabling communities to lead on finding solutions as part of a preparedness and response effort. We want to see people receiving aid working alongside aid providers to design and lead complaints systems built on trust, in local languages that fit with the communication culture and are capable of responding to people’s actual needs. This has to happen well before a disaster occurs.
Spearheading reform in the system, specifically disclosure and handling of serious complaints and protection against sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a CDAC Network member, is leading a sector-wide, inter-agency plan in Cox’s Bazar for Rohingya refugees and host communities to report abuses, and for humanitarian organisations to take robust action. The plan includes raising awareness about PSEA, effectively communicating to refugees a zero tolerance policy, information about reporting incidents, and providing a survivor-centred approach by coordinating with gender-based violence service providers.
We need to change the way we think about safeguarding, see it as enabling and bringing organisations closer to realising commitments made back in 2016 during the World Humanitarian Summit to boost localisation and participation – supporting people in crisis to gain greater control over their lives. Only when people are able to make informed decisions and redress problems with the assistance they receive, will aid systems be truly accountable.
Technology has a greater part to play in levelling the playing field and opening up channels for people to report, investigate and act on complaints at the local level. Increasing connectivity and mobile phone access is creating new possibilities for simpler, more efficient data gathering, monitoring and reporting systems accessible for people in areas where resources and infrastructure are scarce. Complaints systems that plug into people’s everyday communication systems will lead to greater accountability, inclusion and transparency of aid.
We want to see more safeguarding focal points trained and appointed at the community level and from the community, raising awareness with context specific information that’s easy to understand. Safeguarding should be part and parcel of all our efforts to work in partnership with vulnerable people.
Safeguarding is about positive local action and collaboration.