top of page

Error 404: Service Not Found – Safeguarding and Covid-19

by Maria Wagner – intersectional feminist safeguarding consultant

Road signs saying: 404 Safeguarding not found

We had just entered the global lockdown when I heard the first account of a survivor being stuck in a field office with the person that had harmed them. The essential service of providing the survivor with a safe place away from the perpetrator was nowhere to be found. In response to the global outbreak of the coronavirus, NGOs rushed to keep staff and communities safe: banning non-essential travel, issuing working from home orders, halting existing operations, and rapidly upscaling new responses. However, it has become clear that the one-size-fits-all approaches to lockdowns and isolation, as well as narrow ‘first things first’ strategies, have challenged NGOs’ adherence to the humanitarian imperative and the humanitarian principle Above All, Do No Harm. We are in a paradoxical situation: emergency measures have fast-tracked historical progress. For instance, disability activists’ long unaddressed call for remote working accommodation was instantly resolved when organizations moved to remote work in the blink of an eye. On the other hand, other progressive issues that were finally becoming mainstreamed – such as gender, diversity & inclusion, and safeguarding – are once again at risk of being brushed off as ‘non-essential’ or ‘secondary’ considerations. Failing to adopt an intersectional lens on how our responses to this crisis affect those inhabiting multiple marginalized and oppressed identities, puts the most vulnerable at further risk, and even jeopardises curbing Covid-19. Leading NGOs have made heavy investments in the creation of robust safeguarding systems built to protect staff and the communities they work in from harm. However, the progress made is at risk of being undermined if safeguarding considerations are not made integral part of the COVID-19 response strategy.

“This crisis does not create new responsibilities; rather, PSEA actions during the COVID-19 pandemic should strengthen existing PSEA commitments to protect and assist people receiving humanitarian assistance.” IASC Interim Technical Note on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) during Covid-19 Response.

A recipe for disaster In humanitarian crises, we must operate on the assumption that misconduct is happening even before evidence has been gathered. Safeguarding and child protection alarm bells are being sounded warning that if the lessons learned from the Ebola and other crises are not considered, then the corona crisis response will be a disaster for safeguarding. We are seeing:

  • Greater safeguarding risks through accumulation of enabling factors

  • Lower, or no, organisational capacity to respond and support survivors

  • Risk of safeguarding de-prioritization with long-term consequences that undermine progress made over the last years.

1. Safeguarding Risks (Narratives of ‘war’ and ‘crisis’ enable bullying and toxicity in order to ‘get the job done’, Lockdown can cause staff to feel remote and dislocated from organisation’s values and policies, New concentrations of unchecked power can lead to its misuse -from intimidation to exploitation e.g. sex for aid, Losses of elder household members and front line workers with care responsibilities will leave vulnerable adults and children at more risk), 2. Risks to Safeguarding work (Contact with those at risk is blocked, limiting access to reporting mechanisms and safeguarding investigations, Overwhelmed Healthcare Systems cannot provide support to survivors, Speaking out about issues that are not seen as a priority can be seen as ’selfish’, Safeguarding work is reprioritised by funding cuts or discarded)
Safeguarding risks & Risks to safeguarding work

Now what: going back to normal?

We cannot afford to de-prioritize safeguarding in this crisis. To avoid this risk, we need to:

  • Work with national and local partners to maintain or establish safeguarding capacity in all responses.

  • Insist on meaningful inclusion of the most vulnerable in response planning, identification of protection risks and risk mitigation measures, and ensure diversity in decision-making and those deemed essential workers – domains that in the NGO world still tend to be male-dominated,

  • Prioritise safeguarding communication and ensure that safeguarding complaints are welcomed and addressed.

However, to simply avoid undoing our progress so far is not enough. In the words ofYuval Noah Harari:

“we should ask ourselves not only how to overcome the immediate threat, but also what kind of world we will inhabit once the storm passes.”

This crisis has already shown that the impossible has become possible. For those of us privileged enough to continue to work from the safety and comfort of our homes: let’s not give up on our previous momentum, and recognise the ways in which we still too often do little more than paying lip-service to the needed transformation in the sector.

We need to move towards a ‘new normal’ that works for the most vulnerable and challenges the 'elephants in the room' whichenableabuse and exploitation in the sector in first place. We need to recognise the “huge power imbalances, structural racism, sexism and patriarchy embedded in a neocolonial aid system that allows sexual predators to do harm, including to the very people it professes to assist”.

How can we get ready to re-build to healthier organizations?

  1. Listen. Adopt feminist leadership principles and safeguarding standards guided by those principles. This means “to create spaces for voices to be heard” of those who hold less power in your organization and in the communities you work in.

  2. Prevent the siloing of critical priorities – safeguarding, gender, diversity and inclusion, accountability, and ‘Shifting-to-the-South’ – by understanding the transformative value of addressing them holistically. Not only in the only in the ‘outside world’, but in your own organisation.

  3. Build a global network of national safeguarding expertise rather than flying in international experts. This is the right move in terms of your localization plans and decreasing your carbon footprint, but it also helps ensure safeguarding approaches are relevant for those we’re aiming to protect. Safeguarding should not be yet another imposition of eurocentric norms that many partner organizations cannot say no to.

  4. Stay proactive now and after this crisis. Survivors still too often experience that “to locate a problem is to become the location of a problem”. We cannot rely on waiting for reports to come to us. We need to take it upon ourselves to identify and mitigate potential harm in our organizational cultures.

  5. Consolidate the gains made during the COVID-19 response by allowing staff to ‘bring all their humanity to work’, as Ella Scheepers said in a conversation on Re-imagining ‘International Development’. Our professional selves are not magically disconnected from our other selves, which Covid-19 has laid bare – our living arrangements, personalities, care responsibilities, and ways of coping with – or struggling through – the crisis. Let’s create now, and continue, an environment of openness where staff trust that they can come as they are, speak their truths, and allow them to discard the masks they have to put on to navigate organizational power structures. Recognizing that people come from different walks of life and enabling an environment where people are able to connect with the human in each other across hierarchical lines is the first step to open up conversations on how to make organizations safe and welcoming for every body.

Are our constituencies getting an error messages when it comes to safeguarding? It will be if we don’t work to make safeguarding a prerequisite in our programming rather than an add-on to ‘otherwise good’ programs. Our operations will only ever be as good as the work they do for the most vulnerable. Let’s ensure our systems are up and running, and up to date for the future.

Safer Edge can help organisations to get their safeguarding systems up to speed and working towards a holistic culture of safeguarding based on proactiveness, responsible use of power, and the creation of positive work environments. If you would like to speak to our Safeguarding team, please email.


Recent Posts
Search By Tags
bottom of page