A safeguarding step change? It’s time for radical ideas

Last week DFID hosted a Safeguarding Summit with representatives who fund, support, research and deliver international aid and development programmes. United Purpose was one of the 500 delegates who came together to support the ‘safeguarding step change' proposed by DFID to drive up standards to protect the people that we work with from harm. While policies, procedures and standards are fundamentally important, they are simply not enough.

This blog is the start of a series which will explore how any meaningful step change needs to be underpinned by radical ideas to tackle the behaviour, attitudes, language and norms which can create a culture where abuse can occur.  

The summit followed The Times expose of the 2002 ‘Oxfam Scandal’ where aid workers were accused of exploiting women for sex. While there was an investigation, and perpetrators were dismissed or resigned, and left Haiti, some were able to continue to work in the sector. It later emerged that the most senior perpetrator had been implicated in previous assignments which begs the big, important question of how he came to work in Haiti in the first place.

Incidents like this are part of the rationale behind one of DFID’s key outcomes of the summit: £2 million to fund the international aid passport. This will provide information to prospective employers which would enable them to bar offenders from working in the sector. Alongside this initiative, the Secretary of State, Penny Mordaunt, sent a loud and clear message to “crack down” on perpetrators, that “your time is up–there is nowhere to hide.”

United Purpose believes that there are two very different types of abuse which need to be distinguished to understand the context and current challenges of safeguarding better. First, there always have been, and always will be, people who seek out and exploit charities and other organisations with access to children and vulnerable adults in order to abuse them. These are abhorrent and awful people and must be rooted out and stopped. However, they are also an isolated minority, against which DFID’s international passport is a welcome safeguard. But barring known perpetrators is the tail end of a failed system, not the solution to the bigger problem.

Far more pervasive is the everyday abuse of power which a ‘sex predators’ list alone will not be able to tackle. This is the second, much harder to stomach issue, that good people are capable of doing terrible things when put in a position of power or driven by fear. The Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide, where neighbours turned on neighbours, are pertinent reminders of this.

The aid sector is laden with power dynamics which run from the very top, where donors dictate which way the aid flows, right down to community level; for example, the transfer of food aid in an emergency. We must acknowledge that the very nature of our work, designed to overcome vulnerability, puts people in privileged positions over the lives of others, and it is this imbalance of power which is all too easily abused.

Professor Phillip Zimbardo demonstrated this in his controversial 1971 Stamford Prison experiment which investigated the psychological effects of perceived power, where students volunteered to play the roles of prison guards and prisoners. With only a few fake prison walls, uniforms and instructions, it was a matter of hours before the ‘guards’ began humiliating their ‘prisoners,’ and days before the experiment was terminated due to the severe psychological abuse the students inflicted on each other.

Zimbardo went on to write The Lucifer Effect – Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, a gritty but fascinating analysis of the experiment, which you can read about here, drawing parallels with the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers who senselessly tortured and took trophy photos of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison. Zimbardo was an expert defence witness in the prosecution of these soldiers, explaining the situational influence that prison had on the guards and their diminished responsibility as a result.

We are in no means comparing an aid worker to a prison guard at Abu Ghraib, or absolving the horrendous crimes committed there. The point we are making is that abuse is not only a matter of evil intention that can be rooted out and banished, it can also be symptomatic of the environment and a question of social norms and expectations–all of which we can influence.

Bold, sensational headlines such as ‘Global List of Charity Sex Predators to be Launched’ play to the narrative that the problem is the bad apples ‘out there,’ not how the good apples turn bad ‘in here.’ These are well intentioned people who can behave badly in the absence of the right norms and expectations, especially when under peer pressure to do the wrong thing or look the other way.

This narrative masks the fact that abuse is also a product of systems that we have created; systems laden with power dynamics and attitudes that make it ‘okay' to pay a child with little money to run errands, to take an innocent photograph without informed consent, or publish an undignified image of a person in a fundraising campaign. These may seem harmless, but without safeguards, they sit on a sliding scale of exploitation. What other expectations emerge when money or goods are transferred? At what point does this child become exploited?  What messages are sent to that child who is not asked about the photograph? Will the next person who does not ask for consent be so innocent? And what attitudes and stereotypes do we propagate when we use the words ‘beneficiary,' or ‘poor people' in the ‘Third World'?

These are uncomfortable but important conversations to be had in the sector, and if you read between the headlines, are found in a strong undercurrent of conversations around creating what David Bull (former CEO Unicef UK and Trustee of United Purpose) has called a called a ‘protective culture’ in his latest blog.

Another outcome of the Summit is a proposed Safeguarding ‘Leadership Charter.’ Moral leadership is, of course, necessary, but we believe that a strong safeguarding culture starts with the individual. An individual who has the self-esteem, social confidence and moral assurance to call out abuse and challenge the status quo.  

The saying goes that evil flourishes when good people to do nothing. The task for the sector is to equip their good people with the skills and resources to do everything they can to prevent abuse and create the protective culture where people can flourish.  It's time for radical ideas to drive this step change–we need more than lists and charters. 

About the author

Jo Davies is the Global Advisor for Well-Being and Safeguarding at United Purpose. We welcome your comments and thoughts jo.davies@united-purpose.org


With thanks to David Bull (former CEO Unicef and Trustee of United Purpose) for his helpful insight and comment.