Safeguarding: Reflexions Of A Global South Leader Amid #AidToo

A nonprofit founder from Haiti reflects on safeguarding trends amid #AidToo and #MeToo movements. At the heart of the issue, she sees deeply-rooted power imbalances.


Since the Oxfam scandal, the aid sector has been focusing on safeguarding with a #MeToo and #AidToo focus. Recently, I’ve been asked to write about the source and implications of the scandal from a Global South perspective (I was born and raised in Haiti, and I’ve been working there for the past eight years.) However, for most of my professional life, I’ve been working in the Global North as an executive leader and nonprofit practitioner and management consultant.

The truth is that safeguarding makes me feel bipolar.

The complex “reality of safeguarding” that is being shaped in the Global North is puzzling for most small organizations in the Global South (and many grassroots organizations in the Global North!).

The root cause and dynamics of abuse

Power imbalances are at the source of these issues. My first job in the nonprofit sector was at the battered women shelter. I quickly learned that rape isn’t about sex as much as it is about control and power. International organizations and institutions go into financially poor Global South countries with budgets larger than government agencies and a lot of political power. There are many good people working in the field, but the truth is, aid workers are human beings and not necessarily “heroes.”

When Global South organizations receive less than 1% of humanitarian and development budgets, the power imbalances invite abuse.

It also doesn’t help that individual and organizational aid recipients will remain silent in the fear of losing their source of income and support. No one in Haiti was surprised by the Oxfam scandal. Abuse stories (sexual or not) are common in the aid industry in Haiti, Africa, and beyond.

The growing bureaucracy of safeguarding

Global North humanitarian and development organizations have launched many initiatives regarding safeguarding. There are talks about vetting, aid workers passports, reporting and monitoring, regulatory review, gender imbalance and paperwork, accreditation, whistleblower protection and the list goes on. Many worry about upcoming donor requirements. Some wonder about the impact of these requirements on small Global South organizations.

How can Global South organizations address safeguarding?

Most Global South organizations have small budgets with inadequate overhead. We are invested in making long-term transformational and sustainable change in a context that is stuck in a short-term “project mode.” It’s challenging at best, often painful at times, and always stressful. For the most part, we don’t have the elaborate management structures that large INGOs have (no large HR or finance departments). We tend to have many part-time staff and rely heavily on pro bono work and donated goods (including our own!). Donor reporting requirements are taxing in our context. What will the donor requirements be regarding safeguarding? It’s hard to tell. But don’t doubt that there will be some.

Some pieces of advice from my perspective:

1. Start the conversation regarding safeguarding.
Be proactive not reactive. What does it mean in terms of the organization and its culture? What are your values? If you stand for gender equality and against abuse, do your practices reflect that? How are you inclusive of women’s leadership? The Haiti Community Foundation has a very participatory, bottom-up approach. In our pilot region, to ensure that women leaders’ voices are included, we ask that one of the two representatives sent by communities to our planning meetings be a woman leader. The reality of our context is that it’s male dominated and male leaders are the ones who tend to show up to meetings. We had to develop a practice to address this imbalance.

2. Develop a documented policy.
Develop a safeguarding policy statement regarding your values and practices. Document it and integrate it in the operations of your organizations (e.g. include it in your staff’s contract.) Don’t wait for a donor to ask you to sign one.

3. If you have a policy, make sure that you make provision for consequences.
If there are no consequences to infractions and abuses, the policies will be pointless. We’ve also had these scandals because organizations have developed policies and not applied them.

4. If your values and policies promote cultural change, your leadership must set the tone and back it up.
Change is hard to create. Without the full backup of the leadership, it will be impossible. Also, be aware that it will not be instant. Change takes time.

5. Be consistent.
We often live and operate in small communities where it’s sometimes hard to address issues (with, let’s say, a key elder’s nephew). You/we must find the courage to address these issues consistently.

6. Don’t be afraid to take stands against abuse.
Whether it’s a local or international organization committing the crime or infraction, we need to speak up and report it. As Dag Hammarskjold said, “Never for the sake of peace and quiet, deny your own experience or convictions.”

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Featured Photo: Hope For Children in Senegal by Maison de la Gare

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