In March 2018, InterAction launched its CEO Pledge on Preventing Sexual Exploitation, Abuse, and Harassment (PSEAH). Signed by 140 organizations to date, the Pledge “represents our commitment to practices and policies that will not only protect our own staff, but also the communities we serve.”
In the three years since its launch, the Pledge has propelled InterAction and its Members to take decisive, intentional action on PSEAH. The From Pledge to Action Team’s (FP2A) 2020 annual survey of Pledge signatories revealed that 91% of surveyed Members have an SEA policy in place to which all staff and associates are required to adhere. Similarly, 92% of surveyed Members have a Code of Conduct in place. Both of these findings were higher than in 2019 (75% and 89%, respectively) and represented the rapid improvements InterAction Members made toward addressing SEAH in the past year.
In the past three years, InterAction Member organizations have been at the forefront of developing tools and resources for NGOs to implement safeguarding changes. From Pledge to Action’s subgrants mechanism helps Member organizations in this process by giving small seed grants to organizations to help them operationalize their commitments to the Pledge and pilot innovative approaches to prevent and respond to SEA.
Grants have ranged in focus from safeguarding focal point trainings, to how-to manuals on safeguarding for small non-profits. Recently, Habitat for Humanity International, Oxfam International, and WaterAid teamed up to use an InterAction grant to create a toolkit for raising awareness of PSEAH among beneficiaries. Materials produced by the grants are all available on InterAction’s Resource Library and are open source to benefit the sector.
Where does the sector go from here?
Despite huge strides made in recent years, the safeguarding sector still has ways to go in ensuring PSEAH measures are in place, robust, and holistic. As Carolina Echegaray, Regional Safeguarding Advisor for Latin America with the International Rescue Committee, said on a safeguarding panel at InterAction’s 2021 Forum, “I feel that we’re right at the epicenter of this tug between compliance and the need for systemic change.”
Systemic change is essential to PSEAH because, at its core, SEAH is borne out of power imbalances. These power imbalances are caused by deeply entrenched systemic issues such as racism, sexism, colonialism, xenophobia, homophobia, and religious hatred, among others. Compliance measures to address SEAH are done in vain if they don’t simultaneously address these systemic issues.
All parts of our sector—from donors to senior leaders to local staff—need to work together to move away from the tendency to view safeguarding simply as a matter of compliance. Competing donor requirements can be extremely time-consuming and taxing for NGOs—particularly for overworked safeguarding staff. By working together to streamline the process, donors can help free up safeguarding staff’s time to focus more on prevention efforts.
A holistic approach to safeguarding starts at the top, with CEOs and senior leaders demonstrating an active commitment to prioritizing safeguarding. Senior leaders have a lot to learn from each other on this topic and should connect across organizations to share insights and discuss challenges wherever possible. As Edgar Sandoval, CEO of World Vision, said in a recent Forum panel on safeguarding, “Given the sensitive nature of things like sexual abuse and harassment, often this learning has taken place in silos, perhaps with each organization feeling somewhat on their own to figure it out. However, to continue to make progress, we all need to work together to help.”
At the local and regional levels, coordination of community engagement efforts and strengthening complaints mechanisms is essential. Reports into safeguarding abuses often find that community members are either unaware of reporting mechanisms or do not trust them.
Heartland Alliance International (HAI) Colombia’s experience in strengthening safeguarding capacity demonstrates why collaboration at the local level is crucial. With the help of an InterAction grant, HAI reassessed its reporting mechanisms by holding focus groups with staff and community leaders. To respond to needs identified in these focus group discussions, HAI trained all staff to handle PSEA reports, re-designed its online reporting mechanisms to be available in Spanish, and established a WhatsApp hotline (the latter of which was a specific request from the community because of the high prevalence of cell phones among refugee and migrant populations).
The results so far have shown that this approach is working—the line has seen an increase in reports and texts/calls from community members and employees asking for information about HAI’s PSEA policy.
Perhaps most importantly, the line has also received numerous reports of safeguarding incidents from other organizations in Colombia, which HAI re-directs through Colombia’s PSEA network.
By devoting the time, energy, and resources to strengthen its own reporting mechanism, HAI Colombia not only improved its own capacity to respond to SEAH incidents but also strengthened the PSEA network in Colombia as a whole.
As Tessie San Martin, CEO and President of Plan International USA remarked in a safeguarding session at InterAction’s 2021 Forum, “A problem anywhere is a problem everywhere for all of us, and the credibility of the sector is at stake.”
InterAction is excited to continue to provide a platform for NGOs to collectively address PSEAH. To join these efforts, please contact Meriwether Beatty, Senior Manager of InterAction’s From Pledge to Action Project.