Article written by Seamus Jeffreson, CONCORD Director.
At the end of April, CONCORD was invited to discuss the recently highlighted issue of sexual misconduct in humanitarian work in the course of a joint workshop with the European Parliament’s DEVE committee. The piece below addresses the issue, and lists the different actions points for EU NGOs. It is drawn from my speaking points and is the product of collaboration and input from many CONCORD members and national platforms across the EU. Thanks to all these colleagues for their input.
Position and background
CONCORD believes, as a representative of civil society development organisations in Europe, that our sector should have the highest standards of responsibility and accountability for its work. We should all reinforce prevention and redress mechanisms in the sector. We stand ready to work with our members, with donors and other relevant parties to review and improve mechanisms to ensure those participating in development programmes and, in particular the most vulnerable, are protected.
European NGOs’ core aim is to help the most vulnerable people in the world, we must always confront abusive behaviour and the misuse of power. Although the recently reported cases concerned the action of a small minority of people, it is nonetheless an issue that we will not allow to go unaddressed. There can be no tolerance for the abuse of power, privilege or trust within our organisations or in our work. We have an absolute duty to our staff, our supporters and donors and, above all, the people we seek to help to ensure we do everything in our power to prevent, detect and stop unacceptable behaviour.
What are NGOs doing in Europe?
Different NGOs are taking actions to review and reinforce safeguarding procedures. These focus on: Prevention; reporting; whistleblowing; complaint mechanisms and sanctions; addressing challenges and learning and critically support and care for survivors.
At national level, government agencies with the support of NGO platforms and regulators have convened consultations aimed at reinforcing safeguarding.
In Germany, NGO platform VENRO has been sharing good practice examples among members and reviewing and updating standards in their code of conduct.
At Partos, the Dutch NGO platform, a core group of organisations has energetically set to work on the elaboration, financing and implementation of an ‘Integrity Action Plan’, described here.
And Bond, the UK NGO platform, is working with members, government and regulatory bodies to ensure organisations are equipped to prevent sexual exploitation across the international development sector.
At EU level, NGO partners have received and are responding to letters from DG ECHO and DG DEVCO requesting assurances regarding their safeguarding systems.
It is worth noting that many NGOs already have policies and practices in place which tackle many of these issues either as own initiatives or to be compliant with national charity law and/or initiatives such as the Core Humanitarian Standard. The recent safeguarding discussions have brought to light potential gaps and many organisations are conducting internal reviews of both the reach of policy and, perhaps more importantly, consistency of implementation. Here are a few examples of commitments, whistleblowing and complaints mechanisms.
Even the best policies do not help if they are not implemented coherently. It is the responsibility of organisations’ management to create and maintain an environment that prevents abuse of power in any form and where misconduct is tackled. Ensuring that staff know, understand and comply with an organisation’s Code of Conduct and safeguarding policies, starts from recruitment and induction. Complaints mechanisms enable the people organisations work with, as well as their staff, to complaint if they experience, witness or suspect misconduct. Through effective complaints mechanisms, organisations can intervene in a timely manner, and learn how to prevent such situations in the future.
Working with other actors to reinforce international standards
We stand ready work with the institutions and with the competent international bodies to review and reinforce systems that protect the most vulnerable in our work. We believe these systems need to:
a. build on existing efforts
b. be practical and effective and not cosmetic
c. be proportional
d. be implemented at the level most appropriate whether national or European or international.
Strengthening and building on the Core Humanitarian Standards – and critically on training and promoting the implementation of these standards among all actors in humanitarian and development work – needs to be the basis of these efforts.
Tackling the wider question of power imbalances in our organisations and sector
The best policies and procedures will not prevent abuse unless wider cultural issues of power imbalances, gender inequality and patriarchy are addressed. Indeed, the issues raised by reports of sexual exploitation in humanitarian operations are those that all sectors and all institutions face, as gender inequality and power imbalances lead to the abuse of the less powerful by those with power. There is a strong recognition among CONCORD members that leaders and managers in the aid sector must do more to identify, manage and prevent safeguarding risks including through addressing structural imbalances and discriminatory societal norms. The onus must be on deterring this behaviour, not on survivors to solve this problem through reporting after the fact, when it is too late. We would like to use this moment of attention on this issue in our own sector to accelerate better understanding and tackling of power imbalances be they related to gender, resources, influence in our organisations and in our community. Hearing the voices and perspectives of civil society in partner countries needs to be a key part of this process.
This is also why CONCORD places so much importance on the implementation of the EU Gender Action Plan II and the SDGs, which seek to bring about a transformation and address inequality in all of its dimensions.
Will there be a long-term impact on EU support for Aid or for NGOs?
Will the publicity around the issue of sexual exploitation have an impact on EU support for Aid or for NGOs? The role of development cooperation and aid in the fight against poverty and for global justice remains as vital as ever. These actions cannot overshadow the important mission and values of development NGOs and the thousands of staff and volunteers dedicated to eradicating poverty and fighting against all kinds of injustice. Any response should focus on the survivors of abuse as well as being proportional. For example, suspension of programmes for sustained periods or returning funds is likely to lead to less help and services to those who need it most. We also need to ensure we do not create disincentives for organisations and individuals to report wrongdoing. We need to be doing everything we can to enable reporting.
Not a new problem, not an easy issue, but the expertise and determination to tackle it and come out stronger.
The issue of tackling sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian settings is complex. I am grateful to Professor Thea Hilhorst for her reflections and proposals which she prepared for the Dutch Parliament in March (to have a good sense of her main points, I invite you to read another blogpost of hers).
There is nevertheless a solid background of experience and expertise in our organisations to draw on and build upon. In collaboration with other humanitarian actors, governments and donors and crucially, in dialogue with civil society and other partners in operational countries, we can work in a way where the interests of the most vulnerable are paramount in our work.