On sexual abuse in humanitarian contexts. What can the sector learn from forest management?

A few days ago, I wrote on LinkedIn a post about Oxfam scandal. Reading it in insight, and although I haven’t changed idea, I realized that I might have exceeded in defining the response Oxfam put in place since 2011 “rather pathetic”. I think that defining it pathetic, rather than just “inadequate”, doesn’t contribute to get a point, and an important one, that is almost totally lost in the current conversation, at least in most of the coverage in the general media and in the political reactions. Namely that by means of activating its safeguard unit, Oxfam has done more than most of the others agencies working in the field.

And this is the bad news.

According to independent research, Oxfam was already considered as an agency implementing one of the best practices in the field in terms of prevention and response of sexual exploitation and abuse. Sure, the assessment is based more on anecdotical evidence and a desk review of the measure, rather than a true performance assessment, and it is unclear if the performance of the safeguard unit could in fact be considered satisfactory – based on the remarks of its former head, Helen Evans, it seems that it was mixed at best (Mark Goldring, Oxfam GB CEO, in an otherwise candid and frank interview, didn’t do a good job in defending the organization from her remarks). I couldn’t find on Oxfam website a systematic performance review – would be great if these documents, if existing, were made public.

Still: this stuff has been in place for seven years. Too little, perhaps too late, but more than most of other organizations are doing.

It is somehow paradoxical then that most of the pressure at the moment is on an agency that was already an industry leader in this regard – with DIFD, SIDA and other major donors cutting or threatening to cut funds if measures are not being taken. Oxfam will now do even more; the question is what the other agencies will do. I can foresee a couple of pessimistic case scenarios:

  1. More of the same. Oxfam gets all the blame, then the storm pass over, Oxfam implements its policy, the rest of the world goes back to business as usual.
  2. More of the same, but worst. Oxfam gets all the blame, the other agencies pay lip service but then try to keep their own cases as much secret as possible, fearing that funds will be cut if it is ever known that they have problems with sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA). The backlash Oxfam is facing could in fact persuade others that what matters most is to avoid to make too much noise.
  3. Let justice be done, though the heavens fall. The scandal mounts on and several organizations are forced to admit that they have in fact a problem with SEA. This leads to a generalized backlash and widespread cut to international aid – bankrupting several organizations and harming more than anyone the people forced to rely only on aid for survival.

Then there is the still a possible and desirable positive case scenario whereby NGOs and international organizations do take the issue seriously, introduce policies and more importantly do implement them, considering them as core of their work. This would mean that every organization complies with a minimum standard in terms of specific policies, their implementation (which is the crucial point), and their evaluation, to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by internal staff.

As it happens, such a standard basically already exists. The PSEA taskforce of the Inter Agency Standing Committee (or better, IASC Task Team on Accountability to Affected Populations and Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (AAP/PSEA), here for specific PSEA materials), had already elaborated minimum standards for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by own Personnel and guidelines for their implementation, and although these might well need some update and improvement, they still are the closest thing to a agency-based uniform standard for fighting SEA.

Further, the same team has more recently published a guide for interagency community-based complaint mechanisms with a focus on SEA complaints. Other examples that could be incorporated in an updated standard include Report the Abuse checklist to prevent and respond to violence against humanitarian workers, still available on their website.  Paradoxically, Oxfam’s safeguarding unit work and their new measures would be another starting point. And there are a lot of workers out there, in the aid sector and not, with helpful contributions (this is an interesting example).

If policies exist, it is a matter of fact that their application has been patchy at best. In order for this to change, I think it will be necessary to introduce an incentive strong enough to make it desirable for NGOs to implement the policies rather than cover up possible cases, without the risk of facing potentially catastrophic backlash. Sure enough, in an ideal world the moral imperative should be enough, but this ain’t an ideal world.

This incentive could mean that each major donor requires potential funds recipients to respect such a standard (this is basically what is happening now with Oxfam), and auditing its implementation. I think an even more promising approach is to introduce a certificate for the respect of such a standard, similar to what is happening with budget auditing, quality control (like the ISO:9000 family), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or Fairtrade certifications. This could take the shape of a single body issuing the certification, pretty much as it happens with Fairtrade (the Code Blue Campaign has recently suggested the creation of an interim commission with somehow a similar mission). However I believe that there is a strong risk of creating a potentially over-mighty certifying body, with potential problems for the accountability of this body itself. I consider more promising the model of quality control certificates or FSC certification, whereby the certificate issuers are separate and independent from each other and from the body creating the standard.

A way to go?

I believe that FSC certification is a relevant case in point, as a voluntary process a company can go through to certify that it has responsible forest management practices, as audited by companies that are independent from FSC itself. FSC is not exempt from critics, both regarding the technical aspects of the standard and the rigour of some auditing bodies. The risk of rubber-stamping is indeed inherent to any certification; however, a three-part process offers better guarantees than other approaches. And despite the critics, it is hard to argue that overall the creation of the standard hasn’t improved forest management compared to the 70s and 80s.

It is clear that the issue has no easy solution. Oxfam scandal has open a window of opportunity – perhaps putting on the hot seat the wrong culprit – but so far there are little indications that real measures will be taken outside of the single case itself. Not exploiting this to introduce practical solutions and reforms would be another dramatic failure, contributing to create more harm.

2 thoughts on “On sexual abuse in humanitarian contexts. What can the sector learn from forest management?

  1. Dear Francesco,
    … and a dream comes true. The “better world” you are describing in your blog already exists: donors do require proof from organisations about the quality and accountability of their work. Some donors use their own due diligence criteria, others require that organisations abide by the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS). Published in December 2014, the CHS is a measurable standard that addresses nine commitments to affected populations and includes several references to safeguarding.
    And following the launch of the standard an auditing body was founded which is completely independent from the standard and the copyright holders of the standard: the Humanitarian Quality Assurance Initiative (HQAI). Third-party quality assurance by HQAI is an objective and independent assessment of where an organisation stands in the application of the CHS. HQAI audits involve document reviews, interviews with staff, partners, the direct input of communities and affected people, other stakeholders and direct observations of selected country programmes in the field. Auditors also examine the output of other independent review processes. All these elements are interconnected to draw a reliable and objective picture of the organisation and incentivise organisations to make consistent investments into improving the quality and accountability of their work with crisis-affected and vulnerable people and communities. During an audit against the CHS auditors will assess not only if mechanisms are in place to identify gaps and weaknesses but also, in case of identified breaches, if adequate measures to correct and redress the issue are implemented. This applies to SEA and SHA safeguarding mechanisms, as well as other elements of quality and accountability. Read more about the topic on our Website: http://hqai.org/open-letter/

    Cherry on the cake: the Executive Director of HQAI (http://hqai.org/draft-hqai-secretariat/pierrehauselmann/) is a founding member of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), to which you refer as a positive example, and collaborated with a number of schemes in the sustainable development sector before bringing his solid experience to the humanitarian sector.

    Isn’t that good news? Let us know if you wish to discuss this topic further.
    Kind regards,
    Désirée from the team of HQAI


    1. Dear Désirée,

      thank you for your inputs. I wanted to mention the CHS as an example of standard within the humanitarian sector, but then for reasons of space I left that out with the idea of making a separate post.

      As you said, CHS and HQAI are exactly the type of initiatives that the sector needs, now more than ever. However – and rightly so – the scope of the CHS is wide in nature, covering all the core aspects of humanitarian action.

      Prevention of (and response to) sexual exploitation and abuse is only a part of this – but for its own nature and for the challenges it poses it probably requires an additional set of tools to be tackled, especially with regard to indicators ad measures to ensure that the policies are being implemented. In other words, a more specific, detailed, technical standard might be necessary.

      I will try to further develop on this in a separate communication, for now thank you for your attention and for your work!


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