At the beginning of the month, alongside my colleagues from across the international development sector, I joined the Safeguarding Summit. Hosted by the Department for International Development and the Charity Commission, we came together to agree strategies aimed at strengthening our safeguarding and protection systems. Collectively, we work with some of the world’s most vulnerable people. They, our supporters, and our donors have a right to expect that we meet the highest standards – and the 22 organisations attending the Summit committed to implement practical measures aimed at meeting these standards.
I have consistently stressed that protecting children is the most important thing we do. Since starting as CEO at Save the Children UK I have had an opportunity to visit our programmes in north-east Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where we are part of the response to the Rohingya crisis. Speaking to the children and the parents affected by these emergencies provides a vivid reminder of what is at stake. Our staff and partners are dealing with people who have been traumatised by violence, uprooted, impoverished and disoriented.
They are providing support to parents who don’t know where the next meal is coming from, or how they are going to get health care or education for their children. As gatekeepers to vital aid, they are in a position of power – and with that power comes a commensurate responsibility to uphold the rights of children to protection and safeguarding.
Imbalances in gender power relationships is at the heart of the challenges facing our sector. One of the consistent themes to emerge from research is that women are acutely vulnerable to abuse, as are children. That’s why we must put gender equity at the centre of our response.
The vulnerability of the children we serve places a special duty of protection on Save the Children. If we fail in that duty we fail in our mission. Over the past couple of years we have greatly strengthened our internal procedures so that today:
- All Save the Children staff members must declare that they will adhere to our child safeguarding policy and sign our code of conduct – both of which are championed by senior staff across the organisation. All staff members must complete mandatory child safeguarding training and all employees are subject to a criminal records background check.
- We run a 24-hour Integrity Line for staff members who wish to report any safeguarding concerns anonymously. We also maintain a team of Child Safeguarding Focal Points who are trained by the NSPCC. Our whistleblowing policy gives staff members direct access to a designated member of the Board of Trustees.
- We record all safeguarding concerns in our annual – and public – transparency and accountability report, along with a clear explanation of the steps we are taking to protect the children, adults, and staff members in our care.
- We carry out regular, proactive work with the children and communities we work with on safeguarding and how to report any violations. Dedicated teams are also put in place to support and protect survivors of abuse.
- All staff members must undertake mandatory Respect in the Workplace training, and we run gender equality training that is supplemented by an active network of gender equality champions. We have put in place sector-leading guidelines about the management of images and media content. All of this is overseen by our dedicated child safeguarding team.
While we believe our systems are among the best in the sector, we are now taking concrete steps to strengthen them. I am committed to ensuring that Save the Children will lead from the front – holding ourselves and others accountable for the commitments we have made and the values that underpin our organisation. To that end:
- We have reasserted our accountability to the people we help and survivors of abuse. Our beneficiaries, our colleagues and our partners must be confident that we can meet our safeguarding commitments – and that the whole sector will have the support it needs to get better. Last year, Save the Children presented a proposal to DFID for a new Safeguarding Centre of Excellence to ensure the best and brightest minds are focused on this problem, and to build safeguarding capacity in times of crisis – ensuring dedicated teams can rapidly deploy to an emergency. We are delighted that this centre has emerged as one of the leading recommendations from the Safeguarding Summit and are very much looking forward to working with DFID and colleagues across the sector to bring it to life as soon as possible. We are also strengthening our internal investigations team to ensure any allegations of abuse are thoroughly interrogated and so that survivors can have full confidence that their case will be taken seriously.
- We have taken concrete actions to ensure a step change in our organisational culture. Not just through updating our Child Safeguarding, Anti-Bullying and Harassment Policies – we know that policies and procedures alone are not enough – but also by commissioning a fully independent review of our historic and current workplace culture here in the UK. I have already committed to making this review public.
- We have put forward proposals to strengthen safeguards throughout the employment cycle. We have asked the UK government to decrease the complexity of DBS checks, a proposal which will significantly increase our sector-wide accountability. We are calling on INTERPOL to create a global criminal records background check – with start-up funding from donors, this could be delivered at pace. And we are exploring how we can support law enforcement to respond positively to allegations of harm and requests for data. Even with the strictest reporting mechanisms, in fragile contexts it is still too easy for perpetrators of abuse to slip through the net. Linked to this, we are urging donors to explore a unified database and indexing system tied to individualised ‘humanitarian passports’. Save the Children is working on a ‘proof of concept’ that would only allow pre-approved individuals to work in humanitarian and development settings.
- We are working with partners and donors to implement more rigorous reporting and complaints mechanisms. In 2017, we commissioned Girling Hughes Associates to carry out an independent audit of our child safeguarding function. Following on from this we are implementing an online case management system alongside a review of both our documentation and reporting processes. We have also met with the Charity Commission and agreed that more regular and thorough reporting will now take place (we have already submitted a first report in line with our agreement).
- We are committed to ensuring that concerns are heard and acted on. Save the Children has a robust whistleblowing process, but we know there is more to be done to ensure all concerns – whether connected to our staff, sub-contractors, partners or beneficiaries – are reported, and that our responses are swift and comprehensive. As part of this, we are reminding all staff of their obligations and making them aware of external whistleblowing mechanisms, for example direct to donors or authorities, on top of our internal process.
None of this is enough. As a sector, we must develop more consistent and coherent reporting systems from which we can derive the real time data needed to identify patterns of abuse. While each of us has to set our own house in order, we have to invest in safeguarding and protection as public goods. That’s why we have advocated for the development of ‘humanitarian passport’ systems and the extension of the UK’s DBS-type model on a multilateral basis.
Last week I had an opportunity to visit our programmes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Our safeguarding teams are working in a shockingly difficult governance environment to provide effective protection to the desperately vulnerable children who come into contact not just with our staff, but also with our partners – a group that extends from other NGOs to government teachers and health workers. It is now critical that we learn from the best practices in countries like the DRC and apply the lessons more widely.
I will continue to hold myself and Save the Children accountable for the promises we have made because what we do is simply too important to fail – and because anything other than our best effort is simply not good enough.