International Development Safeguarding: A Survivor-Centred Approach

International Development Safeguarding: A Survivor-Centred Approach

In dealing with incidents of harassment, exploitation or abuse the international development sector’s response should be guided by the wishes of the person who has been harmed, as VSO‘s CEO, Philip Goodwin, writes.



VSO has a “zero tolerance” approach to harassment, exploitation and abuse. This means being absolutely clear about what is acceptable or not. It’s about fostering a culture where people are encouraged to challenge and report inappropriate behaviour. It means setting strict guidelines and high standards around reporting, supporting and investigating safeguarding concerns and incidents. It’s an approach that requires a commitment to continual improvement of the processes and practices that keep our staff, volunteers and beneficiaries safe.


Zero tolerance does not mean zero incidents

As Chief Executive of VSO, I am responsible for an international development organisation with over 4,700 volunteers and 750 staff, working with over a million people across 23 countries around the world.

Sadly, for such a complex, global organisation even a ‘zero tolerance’ approach can never mean zero incidents. This is the first thing we have to understand if we are to be accountable to survivors of abuse and harassment, and to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve.

The scale of our work at VSO means there will always be safeguarding incidents. Indeed, if there were no incidents reported at all, I would consider that a failure of our systems and would be asking serious questions.


Taking a survivor-centred response

VSO’s people-centred approach to development puts the needs and rights of the people we serve at the centre of our work. Putting people first is in our DNA. It is a core value and extends to anyone to whom we owe a duty of care, no matter who they are.

When safeguarding incidents are reported, we take a “survivor-centred” approach. This means that if a safeguarding incident happens, the wishes of the person who has been harmed guide VSO’s response.

Our first priority will be for the survivor’s safety and security.

We treat them with dignity and respect, responding to their needs and doing all we can to involve them in decision making and interventions rather than making them subordinate to a “one size fits all” policy.

It’s not our job to impose our opinions. Their rights to privacy and support are paramount. We provide whatever survivors need. This may be legal support, medical support, or counselling, and we continue to support survivors for as long as necessary.

Once you have established the facts, you should always look at what the right thing to do is, in terms of who you serve, not the charity itself. Too many organisations have tried to deal with reputation first and worked out what the right thing is later. If you do the right thing it is more likely that your reputation will survive. But even if that isn’t true, doing the right thing for the people you serve is paramount.


Safeguarding in a complex world

Those of us who work in the development sector should be painfully aware that we do not live in a perfect world filled with perfect actors. There are complex social dynamics at play, from gender inequality to power imbalances, which exert pressure on people, including survivors.

There may be any number of reasons why survivors do not report abuse right away.  It is a sad fact that many survivors of abuse will never tell anyone what they have experienced. Those that do, may not be ready to disclose everything at once. This is normal. The wellbeing of survivors must be our number one priority. Our response to safeguarding incidents must be guided by their wishes, not by our desire to get to a conclusion quickly. Rushing a response risks further pressure being exerted on survivors, which could add to their trauma and discomfort.  For these reasons, investigations will not always be linear and straightforward.  We should expect the process to take time, resource and expertise. That is what we must navigate if we are to be truly survivor-centred.

Transparency is vital in such a process. Even if a report of inappropriate behaviour cannot be substantiated, or turns out to be unfounded, we report it as a “concern”. Reporting allows others to hold us to account and helps create a culture where open conversations about safeguarding can happen.


Developing a more nuanced understanding of safeguarding

As we approach two years since the international development safeguarding scandal first hit national newspaper front pages, safeguarding concerns have rightly risen in prominence in our sector. Awareness has grown, and huge efforts have been made to improve our responses to harassment, exploitation and abuse. But work remains to be done.

If we are to keep the survivor front and centre in our response, we must guard against drifting into a compliance culture born out of fear of failure and reprimand. This will simply push us back into ‘box-ticking’ and reputation management. We need to nurture a living, breathing safeguarding culture. This means not just a commitment to transparency but also a commitment to learning, reflection and collaboration. Ultimately, as charities, we need to always ask ourselves “what is the right thing to do in terms of the people we are set up to serve?”



Philip Goodwin will present a session on Implementing a Survivor-Centred Safeguarding Approach at the International Development Safeguarding conference on Thursday 12 December.