As the international aid sector continues to make progress towards full realisation of the commitments made during the Safeguarding Summit in 2018, Official Development Assistance (ODA) organisations have made well-intentioned efforts to improve the prevention, mitigation and response to sexual exploitation abuse and harassment (SEAH). However, SEAH remains a scourge in the ODA sector. If the sector is to be successful at restoring confidence in the work that we do around the world, it must engage in true survivor-centred safeguarding work and create space for survivors to lead the way - particularly in project design and in addressing SEAH.
Before moving into the ODA sector, I held a safeguarding role within a high-profile religious institution where my team’s work involved engaging with survivors of abuse. I was impressed by their candour, the honesty of the feedback they provided, and the high level of involvement they wished to have during the formation stage of new initiatives and programming. They put forward the terms ‘co-develop’ or ‘co-design’ to represent a progressive form of engagement that goes beyond basic, surface-level listening exercises and focus groups. Co-development and co-design (which we can express as ‘co-production’) entail meaningful ongoing consultation with survivors across the long term. Co-production means creating safe spaces for survivors to share feedback in a safe and ethical way. A key aspect of co-production is that it must not be extractive and should be based on collaboration, trust, and mutuality of understanding.
My team began working more closely with representatives from an existing survivor reference group to think together about how this could be achieved. One way forward identified by survivors was to structure SEAH training in a way that provides attendees with a safe space to critically reflect on the lasting impact that abuse has on survivors. Survivors also wished to see more detailed information on how to respond appropriately to safeguarding concerns. In one module for senior leaders, anonymised survivor quotes were (with the survivor’s permission) placed around the room for attendees to view throughout the training session. This was done to ensure sufficient emphasis was placed on survivor experiences, rather than just spending the day discussing safeguarding policies and procedures. Safeguarding case studies were co-created with survivors and made into films for discussion and learning. The aim of the case studies was to model empathic responses, not only at the initial point of disclosure but also across the entirety of the survivor’s journey when there is likely to be an ongoing need for support.
The new courses were delivered across the UK. The feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive. Attendees said that the process personalised safeguarding and made it less compliance-focused. The co-production approach required them to think about the devastating and re-traumatising impact that poor case-handling can have on an individual – and how we can inadvertently cause further harm and hinder a survivor’s journey to recovery.
How could the ODA sector apply principles of co-production?
Survivor co-production requires shifting the balance of power to give survivors the leading voice on the shape and structure of prevention, mitigation and response to SEAH. If we truly embrace the principles of survivor-centred approaches, this is an essential component to reduce risk, build trust, and adopt a preventative approach across the longer term. For this to be achieved, ODA actors should start by building pathways for more meaningful survivor engagement using systems already in place. Local survivor advocacy groups and CSO’s should be consulted to explore ways of capturing safe feedback from survivors and how this might be achieved, particularly for programming that will undertake direct work with under-18’s and adults at risk. Areas where survivor co-production would be useful include:
- Evaluating the strengths of project referral pathways and reporting mechanisms - so that raising concerns is made easier.
- In the development of community feedback and complaint structures - where survivors could serve as permanent members of a review or accountability panel, with direct access to senior leadership.
- In the creation of more targeted survivor-centred training – so that staff are able to understand the impact of SEAH from the survivors’ perspective. Whilst the sector has embraced more robust training for staff, we need to ask ourselves:
- Are survivors’ voices really reflected in organisational safeguarding training?
- Are the training sessions overly focused on compliance?
- Are attendees enabled to understand the longer-term impact of abuse?
- For large organisations managing long-term development delivery programmes, consideration should be given to funding independent ombuds and redress schemes that provide opportunities for survivors to access support over time (not only at the initial point of disclosure) as well as an impartial point of escalation for the handling of SEAH incidents. The ODA sector has been resistant to calls for independent oversight, However, given the persistence of SEAH incidents that continue to be reported globally, this approach must be reconsidered.
It is our obligation as responsible ODA actors to place a sharper focus on meaningful survivor engagement and greater accountability by adopting the principles of co-production. We must amplify the voices of survivors by creating safe spaces for ongoing dialogue and continued engagement. Most importantly, we must demonstrate to survivors that they are heard and that their voices are valued and respected. This is the only way the ODA sector will see lasting improvements in the development and design of safer projects and more effective SEAH prevention, mitigation and response. The ODA sector can and must do better.
How will you apply principles of co-production to address SEAH in your work?
Further Learning Resources
Murad Code of Conduct
We are fortunate that there are emerging models developed with and informed by survivors to guide co-productive work in the ODA sector already. One of these is the newly released working draft of the Murad Code of Conduct. This is an excellent starting point for considering how best to engage and co-produce with survivors. Although it is mainly intended for use to address conflicted-related sexual violence (CRSV), the broad principles it endorses can be adapted to guide the ODA sector’s safeguarding approach. For example, the authors highlight an important starting premise:
“All work with all people affected by abuse and trauma needs to look unlike and be the opposite of abuse - otherwise it can inadvertently replicate the dynamics of abuse and cause harm.”
This could easily be applied to safeguarding work and is a helpful summary of some of the guiding principles which underpin case- handling work.
The Murad Code is designed to guide safe, ethical and meaningful engagement with survivors. The authors are encouraging full adoption of the Code of Conduct to be applied across a wide and diverse stakeholder group and can be applied across a range of settings. The website notes that, “The Code embodies standards applying to individuals and to organisations, which should embed these standards in systems, policies, procedures, contracts and practice.”
The 4 overarching principles include:
- Understand Survivors as Individuals
- Respect Survivor Control and Autonomy
- Be Responsible and have integrity
- Add value or don’t do it
In addition to the Murad Code, an advocacy organisation called Survivor Voices has begun piloting two useful tools, the Survivor Research Involvement Ladder as well as the Survivor Charter: A Charter for Engaging Survivors in Projects, Research & Service Development
These tools help to map out the role of survivors and what this could look like across many areas of work- whether it is programme delivery, research, monitoring and evaluation – survivor engagement should really begin at the stage of conceptualisation. It should of course be done with the full consideration of ethics, confidentiality, wellbeing, and care to ensure survivor participation is conducted with the highest standards of integrity, care, and safety.
 Additional background on safeguarding including internationally recognised definitions of SEAH can be accessed here What is safeguarding? | Safeguarding Resource and Support Hub (safeguardingsupporthub.org)
 The FCDO Safeguarding Progress Summary can be accessed here: FCDO Progress report on Safeguarding Against Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Sexual Harassment (SEAH) in the International Aid Sector, 2019 - 2020 (publishing.service.gov.uk)