International Safeguarding Summit: lessons for all charities

Last week I attended the #safeguarding2018 summit organised by the Department for International Development to take forward its plans to enforce global standards that will help stop the abuse of vulnerable people around the world.

There were over 500 delegates from the United Nations, the World Bank Group, international financial institutions, research organisations, survivors and of course NGOs – including UK charities working in international aid.

Some of you may be asking yourselves what relevance any of this has to you. After all, while there has been a recognition that in the international aid context sexual abuse and harassment are experienced widely, and that perpetrators have found a way also into charities, domestic charities have been quick to point out that they haven’t experienced the problem on the same scale. When something has happened, it’s been an odd bad apple that needed to be weeded out.

That would explain why on a number of occasions I have heard people express frustration that they are being dragged into the problems caused by ‘a few big international charities’.

But is that a sufficient reason to not listen? Or are there lessons we can learn from what the international aid sector is going though?

I think there are, and here is what I took away from the summit and something that all of us should be doing – whether a trustee, a chief executive of a small charity, or a volunteer.

Even more so in light of today’s announcement by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport about a package of training and support aimed at helping domestic charities improve their safeguarding.

It starts with small

At the summit we heard testimonies from victims of the worst kinds of behaviour: rape, sexual exploitation, child abuse.

But they happened through decades of turning a blind eye on smaller behaviours, creating a culture of acceptance in which behaviours were allowed to escalate.

We want to make sure that we don’t get there. So we all need to make sure we are confronting and addressing any behaviour that, although ‘lower level’, is unacceptable. This will create a culture where people can speak up and feel safe to do so.

Accountability, Accountability, Accountability

Accountability still isn’t the norm. We all need to assume that things can go wrong, and act accordingly.

This is about human behaviours, and unfortunately charities – like any other institution – are not immune from bad behaviour happening.

So we need to recognise where there are weaknesses and address them. That way we can ideally prevent them from happening, or act effectively when they do.

Report and act

A key message throughout the summit was the importance of reporting.

The day before we had already heard from the Charity Commission about the increase in serious incident reports by charities, and how this is a positive thing because it demonstrates that charities are identifying the problems and addressing them.

We can’t say this enough: the metrics of success is not the absence of reports but how reports are handled.

Zero tolerance

There has been much talk over the past months about having ‘zero tolerance’ of abuse.

And it is just as important to send the message that there is zero tolerance of no action: not seeing any action taken when something is reported is almost as unacceptable of the behaviour reported itself.

Collective responsibility

The summit saw commitments not only from international development charities, but also the United Nations, international financial institutions, and research institutions. There was a recognition that to deliver the generational change required, everyone needs to take a share of the responsibility. Now is not the time for the private sector to pass this on to charities, or for charities to say that the government need to lead.

The same applies to us: we all share the same values, regardless of whether the organisation we work for is large or small, or whether it helps people here or abroad.

So instead of seeing what has happened in international aid charities as the cause of some of the current challenges, let’s use it as the canary in the goldmine and make sure we all think about where we can improve.

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Elizabeth Chamberlain Elizabeth is head of policy and public services at NCVO. She has been part of the policy team since 2008, as the expert on charity law and regulation. Her policy interests also include charity campaigning, the sector’s independence, transparency, and accountability.

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