Issue 81 - Article 6

Post-#aidtoo: are we setting ourselves up to fail?

June 17, 2022

Hannah Clare

Carolyn Bys

woman power idea Photo: Adobe Stock Photo / artqu
15 min read

As Safeguarding practitioners focused on preventing and responding to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment (SEAH), we often forgo critical reflection on what works and what doesn’t in a constant push to ‘do something’ in response to #aidtoo. Many would agree we are yet to see meaningful impact from the significant attention to PSEAH since 2018. And questions are now being raised about how new resources are being used. A recent IASC review of progress on PSEA 20 years on from the report on the 2002 West Africa food aid for sex scandal concluded that ‘the IASC has not clearly articulated the change that was desired, set measurable targets, or monitored the effectiveness of activities. IASC activity has been siloed’.

Are we repackaging tools instead of investing in qualified people to execute them?

Meanwhile, an abundance of new, heavily branded tools have flooded the aid world in the rush to be seen to be doing something about the problem. But what is remarkable about many of these products is actually how unremarkable they are. One would be hard-pressed to find more comprehensive technical guidance on how to carry out a PSEA investigation, or on what constitutes a ‘safe’ complaints mechanism, than in the pioneering Building Safer Organisations (BSO) Handbook published by ICVA in 2007. The BSO handbook is much easier to use than the IASC 287-page behemoth on inter-agency complaints mechanisms published in 2016, and provides a more appropriate checklist within a much more comprehensive toolkit than does the 2020 UNICEF PSEA Toolkit for partners,or countless other similar attempts. It’s taken more than seven years for practitioners to make the case that the IASC should have focused on enforcing BSO standards at the individual agency level instead of creating new tools.

A 2019 Oxfam case study listing community barriers to reporting in Myanmar repeats familiar findings first raised from work on the Thai–Myanmar border between 2007 and 2010, as if it is saying something new. And PSEA standards, although now helpfully simplified and translated into dozens of languages, still contain the same wording more or less unchanged since they were first drafted 20 years ago. One could be forgiven for losing interest.

A lack of political will to change is scarcely better evidenced, though, than in the narrative that it is too difficult to find people with the relevant skills and experience to do this work. This statement is not only untrue, but it has also made it easier for leadership to avoid more meaningful change by justifying a general failure to hire or listen enough to practitioners who could get results (including higher reporting rates). High turnover among practitioners plays a significant part in weakening enforcement systems that take time to set up.

Instead, the sector has favoured experience in aid (often in bureaucratic programme management positions) over experience and solid understanding of sexual violence, case and investigation work. Experience in these areas is probably easier to adapt to aid than the other way around, but we lack competent recruitment and talent retention strategies to back this up. Subsequently, it is usually investigators who are last on the scene after managers or HR have already taken action, often failing to follow proper procedures. Common examples include prematurely informing the accused they are under investigation (in some cases to warn them), appointing investigators who have conflicts of interest to lead case work and carrying out preliminary ‘fact finding’ before investigation planning thereby ruining the possibility of protecting affected parties and evidence (and in some cases rendering it impossible to investigate because it is poor practice to investigate the same case twice).

The recent ICAI review into UK Safeguarding investment found that, despite strengthening FCDO’s internal investigation capacity, significant barriers to conducting fair investigations persisted inside the organisation, including failure to protect whistleblowers from retaliation or to enforce disciplinary processes for those found guilty of wrongdoing. Investigatory work still hasn’t been recognised as the highly skilled and risky work it is. 

Are we avoiding accountability because we are still grappling with the basics?

It seems we still have a long way to go before meeting the recommendations of the original IASC PSEA Plan of Action, when the UN first coined the term ‘PSEA’. That report highlighted the importance of creating an environment that prevents abuses of power through ‘enhanced beneficiary participation in all aspects of humanitarian programming’, including ‘dissemination of information on beneficiary rights, entitlements, responsibilities and complaint procedures’. Yet, little has changed in our approach over the last two decades, even though we now know more. Meaningful community participation in both the design and the delivery of assistance is key to safe aid work. The ICAI review also highlighted these deficiencies, noting that, while FCDO requires aid organisations to consult with populations and respond to feedback, there is no systematic oversight over whether this is done, or how well. Without accountability or quality measurements, it becomes yet another box-ticking exercise, rather than a meaningful effort to engage with affected populations.

It is not only in design that we meet dilemmas: it is also in structures and practices. Despite an obvious conflict of interest, for example, it is still commonplace to find that humanitarian agencies responsible for camp management (and residency permits) also have responsibility for camp complaints mechanisms by default. This is not considered a conflict, and yet complainants, just like whistleblowers inside agencies, can suffer severe consequences for reporting abuse, including forced repatriation, because they report against someone who is well connected in the agency. Abuse of power thrives in environments lacking information and transparency.

There are also issues with how we learn of SEA and sexual violence in communities. Unlike in academia and other sectors, we aren’t asked to follow strict ethical guidance, and it shows. We often raise expectations and carry out unnecessary focus group discussions in Protection programming, or re-question people who have already reported abuse. We are usually unprepared to respond to disclosures when they happen, and veer close to voyeurism which quickly lends itself to irresponsible interactions. Although it is good practice not to invite disclosures of sexual violence without being prepared to offer access to quality-assured services, in aid work this is often done as a general ‘point of interest’ rather than being viewed as a specific type of programming (requiring a responsible approach and planning) in and of itself.

Also concerning is the fact that, rather than aligning with movements like decolonising aid and localisation, which seek to deconstruct the same structural power imbalances and inequality that facilitate SEAH in the first place, the sector seems to favour siloing into Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and ‘organisational culture change’ initiatives– both of which run the serious risk of performatism if not accompanied by a genuine commitment to sharing and distributing power fairly. For a discussion about the importance of shifting power in Safeguarding, see,  Nour Abu-Assab, N., Nasser-Eddin, N. (2021) Organisational Safeguarding Best Practices and Procedures: A Toolkit Towards Transnational Intersectional Feminist Accountability Frameworks to Respond to Exploitation, Assault, Abuse, Harassment and Bullying. (CTDC and WILPF), pgs. 22-23.

None of this is surprising when we consider that aid has historically been resistant to adopting systems which could promote external accountability. The Dutch government commissioned a scoping exercise which led to recommendations for an international ombudsman in 2018, but this has disappeared from discussions. Recognising that NGOs can also harm human rights, existing business and human rights instruments (written by several NGOs) have already been suggested as a ‘moderate avenue for NGO accountability’. Domenico Carolei, Nadia Bernaz, Accountability for Human Rights: Applying Business and Human Rights Instruments to Non-Governmental Organizations, Journal of Human Rights Practice, Volume 13, Issue 3, November 2021, Pages 507–528,    But aid has been too slow to find value in risk management and external scrutiny, even where functional systems already exist.

Are we borrowing from GBV case management to avoid organisational responsibility?

Prior to #aidtoo, sexual misconduct investigation experts were few and far between, although gender-based violence (GBV) programmes were becoming more common thanks to Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality. This led to an infusion of GBV principles from the case management context into workplace sexual misconduct investigations, causing much confusion about obligations and best practices.

The crux of the GBV approach is reflected in the mantra-like invocation of the term ‘survivor-centred’, and its four key principles – safety, confidentiality, respect for self-determination and non-discrimination. Keep in mind that the term ‘survivor-centred’ has largely emerged from a body of work addressing GBV case management in humanitarian and other settings, especially where NGOs fill in the gaps where government-offered services aimed at healing and recovery are absent. The survivor-centred approach was first promoted by those ’engaged in violence against women programming’, and international GBV guidance highlights the need ‘to prioritize the rights, needs, and wishes of the survivor’.  

Those key principles are highly relevant to the goals of case management – to connect a survivor with healing and recovery support services and resources (mental health, medical, legal or other emergency support) and follow up in a coordinated way. When addressing the needs of any survivor of violence, safety should always be the leading principle. There must be informed consent (respecting confidentiality) when sharing a survivor’s personal information to access support services. The role of the case manager is to inform and support, with the adult survivor exercising self-determination regarding whether they access support services or report crimes to law enforcement. Consistent with anti-discrimination laws, case managers must not discriminate in their service work based on a survivor’s identity, which includes characteristics such as, gender, sexual orientation, disability, race/ethnicity or religion.

SEAH and GBV may overlap conceptually as both address sexual harms. However, GBV programmes are directed at sexual violence generally occurring in communities. PSEAH violations focus more narrowly on staff misusing their positions of authority and causing harm through the scope of their employment; this is reflected in the prohibitions on creating hostile working environments through sexual advances/comments and trading organisational jobs, resources or aid for sex. These types of violations directly affect organisational legal responsibility and liability for ending harms caused by their staff and for the safety of both the targeted individual and others. ‘Survivor-centred’ principles, especially confidentiality and self-determination, are increasingly being interpreted in this context to disavow any of the exceptions enumerated in GBV guidance together with the IASC Six Core Principles that require humanitarian workers to pass on reports they receive to those in their organisations properly trained to handle them. Indeed, these principles are often invoked by managers as a way to avoid having to respond to reports. Rather than holding organisations to greater account, these principles are being used to deflect organisational responsibility, which is antithetical to their legal duty of care to both current survivors and those who could be harmed by staff.

While the terms ‘survivor’ or ‘victim-centred’ are used in a myriad of ways in connection with investigation and response, See usage of the term/concept  in connection with SEA responses from Bond, in the UN Protocol on Allegations of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Involving Implementing Partners para. 5, in the UK Strategy on Safeguarding Against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and Sexual Harassment within the Aid Sector, pg. 14; USAID’s PSEA Policy, pg. 3. there is little operational guidance on what this means in practice. For instance, UNHCR  policy on “victim-centred approach” to sexual misconduct seems to focus on the case management aspects of the report– connecting a victim with services and keeping them informed of the process. Even the recently updated investigation guidance from the CHS Alliance, endorses a survivor-centred approach but does not specify which ‘extreme circumstances’ would allow an investigation to continue when a survivor does not consent, or describe other ways to continue an investigation without the survivor’s participation in order to meet an employer’s obligations to prevent and correct harm. Similarly, USAID’s Office of Inspector General noted in its audit of the USAID PSEA Policy the lack of guidance on survivor-centred investigations or ‘on how to balance the survivor’s interests with the Agency’s need to take action to prevent specific perpetrators from working on USAID awards’. 

We can appreciate that past results from investigations led by under-qualified people have left many with little confidence in the process. However, rather than trying to shut down investigations entirely as a means to ‘protect’ survivors from re-traumatisation, we should be insisting on professionally led investigations by trauma-informed investigators and demanding that organisations take seriously their obligations to stop harm through a safe process.

Trauma-informed approaches are evidence-based and build on more than 30 years of research that help us to understand ways of interacting with a survivor that can contribute to, rather than detract from, their healing and recovery. The objective is to examine policies, procedures and practices and identify how they may negatively impact people who have experienced trauma. Using this approach is a better way to address the legitimate concerns that some survivor advocates have for a survivor’s physical and emotional safety in an investigation or accountability process. We also know that given their experience with sexual violence (and research which suggests that 70% of people experience trauma in their lifetimes), there is a high likelihood that in dealing with reports of SEAH, we may encounter survivors impacted by trauma.

Trauma-informed approaches also have guiding principles which are more consistent with employer obligations in relation to harm caused by their staff. The first is safety, and the most significant overlap with survivor-centred principles: it means organisations have to fully acknowledge the breadth of their safety obligations to both end harm by staff and ensure they are not creating new harm in the process. Second is transparency, being open about the organisation’s responsibilities and obligations, as well as its limitations.

Third is collaboration and voice, where survivors are given space, within a fair and objective process that is transparently explained, to provide input on the actions an organisation proposes to take, especially with regard to survivors’ own physical and psychological safety. This approach should facilitate more harms being reported at earlier stages, with a corollary need to expand processes beyond the investigate/do not investigate binary, which can be a huge barrier to survivor participation. This in turn should allow more space for survivor choice on meaningful options to stop and correct harms, such as restorative practices. At their core, restorative practices focus on harms and centre the needs of the individuals involved, recognising that wrongs result in obligations to repair harm through a participatory and engaged process. Last is cultural humility, where we defer to the survivor’s lived experience to help us understand how we can best address barriers to their participation in the investigation process.

‘Survivor-centred’ is a term used to advocate for individual survivors during case work. In the investigation process we advocate the use of ‘trauma-informed’, which encourages investigators to examine processes and practices through a trauma lens to generate system-level change and improve reporting and investigation practice at all levels. We should be drawing on the plethora of similar applications, including investigations of sexual violence, that already exist. Trauma-informed approaches are  being adapted and applied to a wide variety of related contexts, including  investigating sexual misconduct on university campuses and in workplaces, as well as in criminal anti-trafficking prosecutionscriminal investigations of sexual violence, and integrated into model policy for law enforcement response to all crime victims. At the international level, UNITAD published a Trauma-Informed Field Investigations Guide. It is likewise being applied in all sorts of similar contexts in which we work more generally, in educational school settings, international development projects, peacebuilding activitiesworkplaces and in organisations.

Despite sometimes heavy criticism, our goal here is to bring more consciousness to the choices that have been made in establishing the PSEAH agenda, from its inception to the latest push post-#aidtoo. Progress is slow because we have invested effort in reinventing the wheel rather than delivering better aid, investing in the right expertise or solving conundrums like those presented here.

Is it possible that, four years on, we are better able to evidence what the problem looks like and less willing to act on the solutions? If so, we run the serious risk of squandering any trust we already have in the systems we have already built.

Hannah Clare works in risk management and focuses on investigations, inclusivity and institutional change. She has managed a rape crisis centre and has worked on PSEAH and safeguarding investigations and prevention for three INGOs.

Carolyn Bys ( is a lawyer and independent consultant in Safeguarding Investigations. Prior to working for a large INGOs as a Safeguarding investigator, she was an appellate criminal defence attorney and trained police and prosecutors internationally on investigating hate crime.


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