Sinéad Magill, Palladium Managing Partner
There's little doubt that sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) is as prevalent in the aid sector as any other. Whilst knowledge of the problem is not new in itself, the last year has forced us all to recognise our collective failure and to challenge ourselves to do better when it comes to prevention and response.
As Managing Partner at a private firm whose business includes the implementation of aid programs, this is an issue that troubles me greatly. Despite a redoubling of our efforts to build policies and structures to safeguard our staff and the communities with whom we work, I know that no organisation is immune.
One of the reasons for this is that whilst many safeguarding practices rightly focus on organisational process and policy, such as stronger codes of conduct or more systematic identification of risk, the greater challenge is to translate these on the ground.
The reality is that aid organisations are frequently operating in highly complex social contexts where the risk of abuse and exploitation may be exacerbated by cultural beliefs or where acute hardship means that individuals resort to risky behaviours simply to survive. These factors can have the mutually reinforcing impact of providing opportunities for perpetrators to exploit and abuse vulnerable individuals (for example where there is an increase in "survival sex" in the wake of a disaster) but also of reducing the likelihood that those affected will speak up, for fear of stigma or of exclusion from the support they depend on to survive. For instance, victims of sexual violence may suffer rejection by their own family or community and suffer long-term impacts that are as devastating as the attack themselves.
To complicate matters further, aid programs are often delivered through complex inter-organisational structures comprising both formal and informal partnerships. There are huge variations in both capacity and approaches to managing safeguarding across organisations, leaving victims confused around how and where to report concerns. What’s more, the serious reputational risk can prevent many leaders from reflecting openly and honestly about the challenges we all face – reflection that is key to identifying and uniting around real solutions.
As yet, our sector has very limited knowledge of the true extent of the problem, little available research on how beneficiary communities perceive and respond to issues of sexual exploitation and abuse, and, at best, only an anecdotal understanding of what actually works when it comes to practical action on the ground.
It's not that these problems are not recognised by aid organisations, but due to their complexity, the resources required, and the difficulties of demonstrating progress, the emphasis has centred first on internal quick wins. But if we in international development are serious about tackling sexual exploitation and abuse, we need to look beyond our internal policies and training regimes and focus on the communities with whom we work and the wider humanitarian and development 'ecosystem'. We will only make meaningful progress when we have a better understanding of the problem in specific contexts, and by working hand-in-hand with the recipients of assistance to address them.
Private firms, like any other organisation delivering development and humanitarian assistance, must be held accountable to the people they aim to assist and to the governments and donors that fund them. Whilst donors have a clear role to play in ensuring all organisations respond to these challenges – and there have been a number of welcome initiatives in this regard, including last year’s Safeguarding Summit in the UK – we also have a responsibility to hold ourselves and each other accountable.
We can't pretend that the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse is likely to be entirely eradicated in the aid sector or that internal organisational practice alone is sufficient. We have to pull together for the long-term to raise awareness on the ground, to build a meaningful zero tolerance culture, to expose exploitation and abuse wherever it occurs, and to ensure that survivors are properly supported and protected.
As Managing Partner for Europe, Middle East, and Africa, Sinéad leads Palladium's donor-funded business including delivery of the UK Government's Humanitarian and Stabilisation Operations program. Sinéad has over 15 years' experience leading governance, security, and justice programs. She played a key role in the DFID programming in Iraq and subsequently delivered programs in Afghanistan, Palestine, Uganda, and Syria, during which time she founded one of the UK's leading stabilisation and recovery teams. A strong advocate for working parents and women, Sinéad was featured in Management Today's 35 Under 35 and won the Women of the Future Business Award. She has a BA Hons from Trinity College Dublin and a Master's in International Development from the London School of Economics.