To tackle sexual abuse in the aid sector effectively, we need to look much further than international NGOs


There have been a number of very sensible and well-articulated commentaries on the sexual abuse scandal in the aid sector which point out that we should not expect the aid sector to be immune to what is a systemic problem, that there are specificities within the aid sector that make it difficult to address these issues, and that neither of these facts should be used to undermine the importance of aid.  Here are a few examples:

There is something important to add, which is that the architecture of the aid sector poses particular challenges to safeguarding.  While the Oxfam story focuses on abuse by international and western aid workers, as I pointed out the other day, most people delivering aid are nationals of the countries where the programme is being delivered.

Moreover much actual aid delivery is not done directly by international NGOs but through patnerships with national and local institutions – both governmental and non-governmental.  There is sometimes oversight through the country offices of international organisations or NGOs, but a number of projects are also funded directly by donors based in rich countries.

Just as INGOs, banks, parliaments and film producers are not immune to sexual abuse, these national and local entities are not either.

Also, local entities delivering aid are often resourced to do so through a range of sources – different international donors, local funding, government funding and volunteerism – which makes the job of figuring out who is responsible for what somewhat murky.  Accountability towards donor agencies is often much stronger than accountabililty to citizens and monitoring tends to focus on financial management risk rather than programme results.  Safeguarding and abuse risks are low on the list of priorities.

To cut a long story short, aid is delivered through an intricate web of partnerships and intermediary relationships and deciding who is ultimately responsible for what is difficult – and is often dealt with by simply passing the buck. And to make things harder, aid is often delivered in contexts where there are limited safeguards or safeguarding implementation.

What this all means is that the welcome spotlight on abuse in the aid sector and the need to strengthen efforts to combat it needs to look much further than the roles of INGOs.  As welcome as international humanitarian passports and DBS checks are, they are only a small part of the solution.  It needs to engage primarily with safeguarding systems at country level and with the need to support them to be effective.  Unfortunately this is going to be even more complicated to do but it is essential if the sector is going to get this right.

Post script.

I also wonder if there is a particular challenge for organisations working in the areas of sexual and reproductive health, HIV, and LGBT rights.  One of the biggest challenges to tackle in these areas is stigma. To do this effectively it is important to take a positive and open approach to sexuality.  Does this make it harder to identify and call out abuse? Possibly; so it’s important that organisations working on those areas pay particular attention to their systems while not compromising positive, evidence-based approaches.

Banning and avoiding words


The Washington Post reported on 15th December that the Trump administration has prohibited the use of seven words in budget requests by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a leading US government scientific agency.  The words in question are:

  • Vulnerable
  • Entitlement
  • Diversity
  • Transgender
  • Fetus
  • Evidence-based
  • Science-based

The article argues that this follows a pattern, with the Department of Health and Human Services dropping the term “sex education” earlier in the year; and the terms in the list certainly seem like the sorts of terms that would raise the hackles of a highly conservative administration.

Subsequent responses, including a non-denial by the head of CDC, have stated that there are no banned words, without really explaining the origins of the story.

My hunch is there may not be an actual ban: bans require laws.  Even President Trump’s attempts to ban transgender people from serving in the US military by proclamation have been struck down by the courts (and ignored by the military).  And I suspect that if Trump’s gang wanted to ban actual research and programming in these areas, they would do so directly rather than just banning words – as they did with the extended Global Gag Rule at the start of his presidency.  I also think if it was a ban on words, the list would be quite a bit longer.

Given that it came up in the context of budget requests, it may be that the list of words represents a form of self-censorship: in other words, these are the terms that are best avoided if budget requests are going to get past lawmakers and the White House.

If this is correct, it doesn’t make the situation any more reassuring.  Anyone with experience with budget request processes, or tendering, or grant applications, will be more than familiar with the importance of tailoring language to the priorities – or whims, or obsessions – of decision-makers; and with the constant flux around what’s flavour of the month.  This is always irritating but can be benign.  Not in this case.  What is particularly chilling in this instance is the contents of the list of words.  The terms confirm an aversion among decision-makers in the US to some of the most important principles and concepts in public health; and the inclusion of the terms “transgender” and “fetus” only confirms that those leaders are picking out one of the most stigmatised and excluded populations, and entrenching the aversion to reproductive rights.

Whether the words are banned or “to be avoided”, the story will reinforce a chill that extends far beyond the CDC. Groups that are not already excluded from US funding because of the gag rule will be thinking carefully about not just their language but their programming.  Organisations working on HIV will remember how, under the George W. Bush administration, as well as contending with the gag rule, they had to take a pledge that compromised their ability to work with sex workers, another highly stigmatised and excluded group and one that plays an essential role in an effective AIDS response.  The same era witnessed promotion of evidence-free but ideology-heavy HIV prevention strategies.  Organisations will be scrubbing their websites and communications materials to make sure there are no red flags.  They will wonder (as I did some years ago) who these people are with unclear job titles, who are emailing or visiting to ask unusual questions.  They will be passing on the risk-aversion tactics to their partners – who should be in the driving seat.  Administrators in the CDC and other US agencies will be caught between a rock and hard place; between keeping doing what they know is right but doing so in a way that does not compromise them.

Effective programmes will probably be de-funded.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this will cost lives.  And the Trump Administration can do this without even needing to ban a thing.

Enabling adaptation


One of the most important insights to come out of the accountability and complexity research fields over the past decade or so, is that as important as local feedback is to getting stuff done (whether this stuff is about improving services or reducing inequalities or enhancing democracy), those on the receiving end of feedback have to actually have the capacity to make improvements.  Capacity can mean lots of things:  power, skills, knowledge, resources, incentives and so on.

One of the problems with this is that in the aid sector, most funding does not really allow for adaptation.  At the excellent LSHTM Centre for Evaluation symposium on Timely Evaluation that I went to last week, a number of presenters and participants pointed out that even where evaluation procedures allowed for rapid, short feedback loops, the “project cycle” – with its predetermined 3-5 year plan for processes and outcomes – hampered any real prospect of change.  At best, we heard that reactive adaptations are possible but only to the extent that they don’t rock the boat. Just so long as they fit in the logframe, in other words.  And one of the few examples given of where rapid feedback did lead to immediate adaptation came from routine monitoring of a routine service (the application of statistical process control to routine healthcare services). I.e. not a project.

I noticed in Duncan Green’s latest “vlog” (from Myanmar where he is visiting adaptive management projects) that he said there was lots of good stuff happening but because it is so fluid and non-linear it is “hard to report on”.  But often the main reason we even need to report on projects is because they are… projects.

Pointing out the limitations of the logframe and the project cycle, and “planning”, is of course not new; and in any case the cycle has been pretty resistant to these critiques.  But the discussions have got me thinking about a couple of things that might be worth looking into.

Firstly, I’ve not seen a lot of work on identifying the determinants of adaptation.  In other words, do we know what it is that leads a service provider or a project manager to improve what they are doing? I made a few suggestions above but it would be good to see some rigorous work on identifying these determinants and on how best to flip the switches. How can we make it easier for providers and managers to do the right thing?

Secondly (and related), in the aid sector there has been a great deal of research on the impact of unconditional cash transfers to individuals and households, and on the impact of performance based funding for service providers.  But I’m not aware of  much knowledge on the use of unconditional cash transfers directly to service providers.  Could providing flexible or contingency resources directly to frontline service providers increase their capacity to gather and act on feedback and make improvements to how they deliver services?  Institutional or facility-level cash transfers?

The third thing that interests me right now – still in the development sector – is the idea of bringing real-time evaluation methods and skills into routine services.  Most of the aid sector’s evaluation efforts are directed to evaluating aid funded projects, and many are also tied into research publication requirements.  So they suffer from the same “project cycle” problems.  But in lower income countries, many public services are actually provided without aid funding – or with minimal aid funding.  They are not timebound projects although they are vulnerable to ebbs and flows in funding.  I’d like to see more aid resources going to support evaluation and improvement capacity in those services rather than focusing on measuring aid impact.



Aid donor 1: So I thought we should meet to talk about how better to coordinate our [thing] distribution programme.

Aid donor 2: yes, thanks for the initiative, we’ve heard from the government that they would like us to rationalise our efforts – it’s a huge country but the way we’re working right now, most of the [things] are concentrated in 2 or 3 districts, and…

Aid donor 1: True, but those are also the districts where the highest number of people needing [things] live, and we’ve decided that they should be our [thing] focus districts for our programme going forward. At least for the next year.

Government: Can I…

Aid donor 2: OK, so we’re fine with that, we can just move out of your [thing] focus districts and go to other districts.

Aid donor 2’s number 2: Kind of, but our [thing] distributors are going to struggle with that because they’ve built up all their [thing] distribution networks in those districts, they’ve influenced [thing] consumption norms, they know they can hit their targets because there are high levels of [thing] demand there, they’ve…

Aid donor 1: OK so let’s have a transition plan so that you can hand over those districts…

Aid donor 1’s number 2: I’m not sure we want them to hand them over entirely

Aid donor 1: Really?

Aid donor 1’s number 2: The thing is, in some of those districts we are promoting the [things], changing attitudes to [things], and building the capacity of [thing] distributors, but we aren’t actually funding the [things]. Aid donor 2 is paying for the [things].

Government: There’s also some work there by Aid donors 3 and 4, and in a couple of districts we are using government money to…

Aid donor 2: So will you take over the funding of the [things] in your districts, Aid donor 1?

Aid donor 1: Yes of course! Mostly. I mean, some of them – but we’re talking a LOT of [things]. We might need you to keep on paying for some of them. Quite a lot of them, even.

Government: What we would like is for each Aid donor to fund its own [things] in its own districts (they’re actually not really *your* districts because it’s not your country, but whatever…).

Aid donor 1: Yes, Government, absolutely, that’s what we want and what we will do.  But it’s also important to be flexible.

Aid donor 2: So Aid donor 1, you are going to take over some of our [thing] consumers?  Then you get all the people already consuming [things] and we have to build up our [thing] consumer numbers from scratch again.

Aid donor 1: Well actually they are our [thing] consumers already.

Aid donor 1’s number 2: Our definition of a [thing] consumer includes anyone who got a [thing] in our districts even if we didn’t actually pay for the [thing].

Government: If you add all of your [thing] consumers together, that’s well over a hundred thousand [thing] consumers – great impact!

Aid donor 2’s number 2: But you can’t add those numbers together. In some cases they’re the same [things]. They’re the same [thing] consumers. That would be double counting.

Aid donor 1: That’s our definition and that’s what we have to report. We want to know who our [thing] consumers are. They are ours. OURS.

Doing aid differently


If you don’t have time to read ODI’s 50 odd page report on Adapting development (part of the “doing development differently” movement) then I can recommend at least looking at Duncan Green’s good summary here. It is full of good examples and will probably have most aid people nodding (once they get over cringing at the concept that development is something that international donors and NGOs “do”).

I also find it slightly frustrating because although these insights have been gaining currency for a few years now I’m not optimistic that aid agencies are really taking them on board (something which I keep going on about: blah; blah; blah).

My pessimism stems largely from knowing what most aid agencies are like but I also feel like the recommendations in the report don’t exactly rock the boat:

• Being adaptive and entrepreneurial.

• Supporting change that reflects local realities and is locally led.

• Aiding development that is politically smart and locally led.

And for monitoring the extent to which programmes adopt these approaches:

• Measures of the extent to which issues have local salience or relevance, and whether processes give priority to local leadership and capacity.

• Evidence of adaptation to context.

• Evidence of learning in action.

• Measures of innovation and entrepreneurial action.

These are fine but they just look a bit too much like things that most aid agencies claim they are doing anyway – you’d be hard pushed to find an agency that does not believe it is living these values already.  And as for the monitoring recommendations I’m envisioning swathes of new toolkits and indicators that “promising local change agents” are going to have to spend even more time reporting on and telling donors about (and consequently having far less time to promisingly agent local change). And given how much we love a shortcut, it’s not a stretch to imagine that “asking simple questions about the extent to which users and local networks and organisations are involved in issue selection, design and implementation” could very easily turn into mandating the precise structure and composition of the multi-sectoral local coordination committee. E.g.

In short, while I think a lot of the thinking in this report is going in the right direction, it feels to me like it is a version of progress and development that is all about aid donors and (smart) international aid people.  And while I do think we can contribute a lot, I don’t think it should be left up to us.