Issue 81 - Article 2

The 2021 IASC PSEAH External Review

June 17, 2022

Moira Reddick

PSEA poster Haiti widely distributed after the 2021 earthquake.

Background and purpose to the 2021 IASC PSEAH Review

A priority of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)’s tenure as IASC Champion for PSEAH was to deliver the first external review of the IASC members’ inter-agency approach to PSEAH in a decade. The 2010 Review had considered the global policies and practice of individual agencies as well as to what extent inter-agency practice was established at country level. In 2010 OCHA had been responsible for leadership and coordination of inter-agency PSEA, but following the 2010 Review the IASC assumed collective responsibility.

The 2010 Review concluded that:

  • collective inter-agency prevention and response to SEA would benefit communities, victims, and survivors
  • without senior leaders and managers visibly committing to action, promoting PSEA policies, proactively supporting PSEA activities, and holding staff accountable for the implementation of these measures, action at country level would not occur.

An advisory group comprising IASC members worked to identify priorities for the 2021 Review. This was challenging given the breadth of PSEAH activity in which IASC members engage. The advisory group finally asked that the 2021 report be structured around four main headings: evidence of a victim-centred approach (VCA) being applied; evidence of an inter-agency community-based complaints model (CBCM) being effective; evidence that leadership, coordination and accountability was effective on PSEAH; and that progress was being made on the IASC Principals 2018 global commitments to address sexual harassment.

The leaders of the IASC member agencies have made a series of ambitious commitments over the past decade, yet verifiable evidence or monitoring data is limited and mostly dates from 2018 onwards. The IASC Global Dashboard is a record from 33 IASC humanitarian countries from 2019 to 2021. This is largely quantitative data that is currently collected via a range of methods, making it challenging to use comparatively. Work is currently underway to further improve this system based on country level experience (https://psea. It quickly became apparent that extensive interviews with staff and partners of IASC members would be necessary to understand why the barriers to implementation of PSEAH mechanisms had apparently proved challenging to overcome.

In total, 159 interviews were conducted at the global and country levels. Findings drew heavily on the experiences that were shared in these confidential interviews, and these findings led to the conclusion that progress and change at country level had been limited. This, in turn, explained why victims/survivors, communities, and staff and partners continue to express low levels of trust that humanitarian agencies would deliver on PSEAH commitments.

Good intentions are not enough. Here in 2021, we have probably bought into the fact that the problem exists and that we have a responsibility, but we don’t have anything in the outcome box yet. We don’t have a sustainable way of dealing with the problem

(Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator).

Repeatedly stating that humanitarian agencies will show zero tolerance to SEAH can no longer be a sufficient principle to demonstrate IASC members’ commitment. It will not result in the desired zero cases. Instead, operationalising the commitments already made and the mechanisms already agreed upon will allow humanitarian agencies to demonstrate that the principle going forward will be zero tolerance of any agency or management inactivity on SEAH. This operationalisation includes acknowledging that PSEAH activity will continue to be needed in every response, and that it must be continuous and resourced.

A commitment to building trust Trust of victims and survivors, trust of vulnerable communities, trust of our own staff members and partners. in the transparency and accountability of IASC members and the humanitarian system requires the fulfilment of a VCA and, critically, a demonstrated respect for complainants and whistleblowers. The need to focus on the (re)building of trust was therefore placed at the very top of the list of recommendations to the IASC leadership.

IASC strategy and the pace of change

While there are examples of progress made in individual contexts, the overall pace of progress has not been steady or systematic. IASC activity has often been siloed or project-based. Although IASC Principals have specified the change – the strategic outcomes – that they want to see in place, timelines were not articulated, measurable targets were not set and budgets were not prioritised. While individual IASC agencies have made valuable contributions that are recognised in the Review report, the IASC Secretariat is clearly under-resourced to deliver the breadth of coordination required. This must be addressed.

Interviewees at country level attributed progress, or positive examples of inter-agency action, to the commitment of individual leaders or to PSEA coordinators rather than to predictable resourcing or the application of IASC models or procedures.

Working on PSEAH in the system is not an area to build a career. PSEAH is still driven by committed individuals resulting in a proliferation of mechanisms rather than predictable systems. The proliferation of mechanisms and ad hoc approaches means we don’t apply learning. My organisation contributes to this proliferation and the resulting fragmentation of focus and systems

(Senior Manager at global level).

Demonstrated inter-agency progress only visibly accelerated after 2017. It is, however, already clear that the allocation of inter-agency PSEA responsibility to Humanitarian Coordinators (HCs) and Humanitarian Country Teams (HCTs) is not resulting in fully resourced PSEA country action plans and activities. It is increasingly common for PSEA to be included in Humanitarian Response Plans and budgets but not yet common for resources to follow. There is no predictable resource to be drawn upon at global level, even for contexts considered to be high risk; this indicates that the humanitarian system is accepting inactivity on PSEA. Recommendations made in 2010 regarding predictable funding have not yet been implemented and no alternatives have been found. Placing responsibility on the HC or HCT without either offering support or ensuring accountability when that responsibility is not met will not provide a resolution. The absence of predictable funding is proving to be a significant barrier to change.

The systems are not yet clear. Setting them up takes a long time if they are to be sustainable and there are not enough experienced human resources available to draw on. The global level should have teams ready to come in and set this up at the start of responses. In the humanitarian sector the necessary significant action has not yet happened

(Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator).

While the IASC has no theory of change in place, the strategic outcomes in the 2018 and 2021 IASC Championship PSEAH Strategies are appropriate levers for change and they should be retained and delivered upon. Previously, the IASC members did not sufficiently detail the change that was required to meet strategic outcomes and did not set time-based targets or monitor the progress or the effectiveness of PSEAH investment or activity. This includes the commitment to deliver according to a VCA. a VCA. These recommendations have now been addressed by the IASC Principals who, in May 2021, approved a new five-year IASC PSEAH Vision and Strategy focused upon the operationalisation of a VCA and with clear targets specified.

PSEA Coordination

There are currently no predictable mechanisms at the global level for the deployment of inter-agency PSEA coordinators or resources to support activities in what are held to be the highest-risk contexts for SEA. Significant efforts have been made by many IASC members to support positions, to gap-fill, or to initiate rosters resulting in multiple ad hoc systems. There is no coherent performance evaluation system for postholders. The mechanisms do not support rapid selection and deployment or prioritisation to locations considered to be high risk. The 2021 Review recommended that a mechanism be put in place to ensure deployment to high-risk contexts where the HC requests support and that the effectiveness of supplying such capacity should be carefully assessed. It was recommended that donors should be approached to support such a mechanism, although some IASC members believe that such a proposal would be rejected and regarded as not value for money by donors. Making progress on the modalities for a deployment mechanism is a priority for the 2022 IASC Champion.

Victim-Centred Approach

There is currently no shared understanding of what fulfilling a VCA would mean in practice for IASC agencies globally and at country level, and therefore no shared agreement on how to measure accountability to victims. IASC member representatives, at all levels, expressed uncertainty about the full nature of the responsibilities and the changes that would be required to fulfil them.

Everyone knows that there should be a VCA but they don’t know what it means. We haven’t even thought about measuring what we do against VCA commitments. Also, it isn’t about writing a manual as each country is different. It is about making ourselves accountable to victims.

(Senior Manager at global level)

A dialogue involving all IASC members is now underway to understand where individual IASC members may have constraints or experience barriers to compliance with an IASC VCA. These factors may not be the same for international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) as for UN agencies. IASC members must make explicit the minimum responsibility at country level and consider how this will be delivered in a variety of contexts. This should include frank discussion of the extent to which current commitments to service provision are resourced and met, how to ensure that the community engagement and complaints mechanisms are contextualised and staffed by trained personnel, and how to ensure that IASC members’ investigation mechanisms are victim- and survivor-centred. Clarity on what is expected of partners and how they may be supported to comply with the VCA will also be required.

Unless you have a strong investigation mechanism you will never get on top of it. Zero tolerance doesn’t mean no cases, it means acting and being seen to act when cases occur.

(Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator)

How many complaints mechanisms are we going to fund until we admit that they do not work? We still sit in air-conditioned offices expecting survivors to come to us.

(Senior Manager at global level)

Resourcing and responding to victim and survivor needs must be understood to be a shared responsibility across IASC members and cannot, as now, be the sole responsibility of service providers.

Planning and applying an IASC VCA must include consideration of sexual harassment as part of the 2018 commitment by IASC Principals to sustain their focus on changing the culture of the humanitarian sector, to address the inherent power differentials that enable SEAH and the delivery models that do not adequately challenge gender inequality.

In summary, the establishment of an IASC-wide VCA, one that can be delivered by all IASC members, was agreed to be a critical first step in providing the necessary detail for a renewed IASC PSEAH Strategy. Articulating targets and timelines to support the existing strategic outcomes and ensuring that the monitoring framework and indicators mirror the commitments in the VCA will reinforce this focus.


Many of those interviewed felt that the reporting to senior global leadership on PSEAH progress over the decade had routinely been too reassuring. The reporting was overly focused on activities and not sufficiently centred on the challenges of ensuring predictable systems or of ensuring humanitarian sector cultural change. In the future the focus should be on monitoring, including qualitative and real-time monitoring, instead of a singular reliance on quantitative reporting.

Work to adequately mainstream PSEA risk assessment and mitigation responsibility across all clusters/sectors systematically has not yet been undertaken. This is required to ensure that risks identified are addressed in design and monitoring of programmes and to reinforce the principle that PSEA is a responsibility of all humanitarians and that zero tolerance on inactivity is now expected. 

The extent and depth of change still needed and the imperative to finally deliver on previously agreed priorities made it critical that the IASC members move to a five-year IASC Strategy and planning cycle. This is because the previous practice of planning for PSEAH at project level and on an annual basis has not leveraged the investment and accountability required to make the necessary progress over the decade. In endorsing the new IASC Strategy the IASC member agencies are agreeing to work systematically over the medium- to longer-term to ensure and resource the change required.

Moira Reddick is an independent consultant who conducted both the 2010 and the 2021 External IASC PSEAH Reviews.


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