Some months ago, Plan International USA, my organization, applied for a grant from a family foundation. By all accounts, the foundation loved the grant application. Everyone agreed it was a good program design that would build community resilience among a vulnerable and marginalized population group. However, instead of a grant, we received a rejection letter “as much as we would like to support the request; unfortunately, the events that took place in 2018 […] are precluding us from supporting at this time.” The donor was reacting to a Plan International Annual Safeguarding Report from 2019. The report is part of our commitment to be as transparent as possible about safeguarding incidents and actions taken within any part of Plan. The report highlighted an incident that took place in a project that was being carried out by another Plan member, not Plan USA. But this was a distinction without a difference. For this foundation, quite rightly, the fact that there were any incidents in any part of the broader Plan organization disqualified every part of the Plan family from receiving funding.
I did not like getting this response as the result of our transparency, but I understand it. A safeguarding violation by any part of our Plan family reflects poorly on Plan USA. Just like a violation in any part of our International NGO sector reflects poorly on every organization in our sector. Until the entire sector adopts rigorous and effective safeguarding standards, no part of our sector can hope to earn (or re-earn) the full trust and support of donors. Is it possible to think that a sector as varied and global as ours can adopt and adapt a common set of standards to the benefit of all? I think so.
How do can we do it?
- It starts with clear policies and guidelines. Policies must include rigorous training, oversight, assessment and monitoring of all actions that touch or affect children and any project participant. Safeguarding is not something you add to your work; it is something you embed in every part of your operations. Good safeguarding starts with a core understanding that each person has rights; among these are the right to be safe and free from violence.
These policies must apply to every staff member, project participant, implementing partner, supporter, vendor and trustee. This requires a whole system be built and maintained to embed safeguarding into key support functions such as recruiting, vetting, training and reporting.
At Plan, there is an in-depth self-assessment and audit on every entity, in every country in which we operate every year.
- Safeguarding must include standards for donors and supporters. As noted above, any person or entity that is engaged in projects and activities your organization supports must be part of your safeguarding expectations and plan.
For Plan, this includes strict standards to which not just Plan staff but its entire network of supporters and vendors must adhere. This includes standards for photographing and exchanging correspondence with children and for interacting with children and their families. We complete an annual sex offender screening of our entire database of active child sponsors every year. We also put every corporate and foundation partner through a vetting process.
- Safeguarding must include the means to monitor and enforce adherence to those standards. Annual self-assessments and audit efforts are important tools for maintaining and enforcing adherence to those standards. But make sure these efforts engage everyone in your organization’s orbit. In other words, it is not just about what your organization is doing. Empower stakeholders and target communities to ensure they are at the center of your safeguarding process.
For example, at Plan our protection and safeguarding work seeks to strengthen children’s and youth people’s capability to advocate on their own behalf and create environments that make it safe to express their views and opinions. Everyone connected to Plan must understand when theirs, or anyone’s rights, have been violated and how to report a violation. They need to know what support is available and how to access it following an incident. Information is power. Make sure it is shared, hich leads me to my final point.
- Effective protection and safeguarding require a culture of transparency and inclusion. A culture that not just tolerates, but welcomes and makes it safe for people to speak out when they see something that is not right. It does not only includes creating multiple safe ways for folks to speak-up but welcoming the feedback, openly acknowledging weaknesses and being transparent on the issues, the actions and the results. I get that these are delicate issues and that for many legal and other reasons we may not be able to share everything with staff and the public. But we cannot hide them either. Sexual exploitation and abuse are ultimately a function of abuse of power. While it is important to observe confidentiality expectations and requirements, it cannot be an excuse to weaken safeguarding standards.
COVID-19 has made a culture of transparency, a culture that makes it safe to speak out, that much more important. Lockdowns, travel/movement restrictions make it that much more difficult to detect, to see, to investigate and speak out. The global health and economic crises also create additional stresses that put staff and beneficiaries at greater risk. We need to make sure we are adapting to the current circumstances.
My point is not that Plan has this all figured out. We do not. My point instead is that if we can develop and roll out safeguarding standards that can work and be adapted to a family of entities as diverse as those in Plan, I believe we can do the same across our entire sector. We are committed to sharing our experiences. And we welcome efforts from major donors like USAID who have to develop robust policies to guide their own and their implementing partner actions. Entities like Humentum also have a major role to play in terms of knowledge sharing, technical support, training and standards-setting. Until safeguarding is at the center for all operations, no one’s reputation is safe.