Addressing the aid sector’s accountability gap for survivors and victims of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment

26 January 2021

The Netherlands Government, CHS Alliance and the International Institute of Social Studies are working together on a three-year project to enable people affected by sexual exploitation, abuse, or harassment to obtain accessible and effective assistance to complain and see their complaints addressed. 

Accountability starts at the level of organisations but cannot stop there. A culture of accountability requires system-wide commitment. People who feel that their complaints are not effectively addressed by an agency, must be able to find independent redress in or beyond the wider humanitarian system.

Based on learning from the three countries, this project will provide valuable insights and practical tools that will benefit the humanitarian sector in other countries, and at the international scale. 

Despite increased political attention and ongoing efforts at the international level, intolerable cases of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment of people in vulnerable situations by aid workers continue to surface.

Earlier this month, the UK International Development Committee’s report “Progress on tackling the sexual exploitation and abuse of aid beneficiaries” highlighted that while some progress has been made, the aid sector needs to do much more to protect people in vulnerable situations. It states “we need safe reporting mechanisms, designed with local populations so that individuals are empowered to come forward. Individuals also need to trust that if they do raise a complaint, robust investigations will take place and appropriate action taken against the perpetrator if the complaint is upheld.”

Tanya Wood, Executive Director of the CHS Alliance, says “The IDC report again highlights the need for aid organisations to address the power imbalances in the sector.  This new project supported by the Dutch Government is very important and is fully aligned with the report’s recommendations on ensuring that reporting mechanisms are designed in collaboration between the aid organisations and the people who will use them, and that affected people who are victims or survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) have access to support services.”

It is important to tackle this challenge from two angles; from within the humanitarian system, as well as from outside the system by involving key actors from the countries where the response is taking place. The CHS Alliance will work with our member organisations and humanitarian partners in the three countries, while the International Institute of Social Studies will ensure the involvement of victims and survivors and societal actors concerned with human and sexual rights.

To ensure that people can feel safe when receiving aid, this project will take a holistic approach looking at three dimensions of prevention, protection and accountability in three pilot countries (Ethiopia, Bangladesh, occupied Palestine territory).

1. Prevention: Preventing sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment by aid workers from happening

Prevention of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment requires that there is a culture of accountability in organisations, supported by the right policies, practice and systems in place to be able to prevent and detect when abuse takes place. Aid agencies need to have well-trained staff to prevent abuse and to be able to act swiftly and with sensitivity when they do.

The project will assess existing practice to prevent SEAH in participating aid organisations working in Ethiopia, Bangladesh and oPt, using the Core Humanitarian Standard as one of the most widely used standards for PSEAH. This will identify where gaps exist and pilot additional measures to support organisations to strengthen their PSEAH measures during the three years and beyond.

2. Protection: Ensuring there are safer, effective and trusted means of reporting when abuses happen

Despite progress that has been made in introducing complaints mechanisms at agency and system level, there is evidence that many survivors and victims do not report abuse, regardless of whether or not mechanisms are in place. CHS Commitment 5 which states that “complaints are welcomed and addressed” continues to score the lowest of all the CHS’ Nine Commitments[1].

We need to do more to understand why reporting levels are so low, as the reasons are complex and varied. We need to listen and learn from the survivors and victims of abuse to understand what they need to feel safe to come forward. Only then, and with their full support and inputs, combined with those of local actors, can we improve more trusted and accessible mechanisms adapted to their locality and deemed safe enough for people to speak out and report misconducts.

This project will listen and learn from the views of aid recipients, victims/ survivors of SEAH, women led organizations, grass roots and civil society organisations, human right institutes and national ombuds institutions. This learning will inform changes at agency and inter agency level that starts from the perspectives of survivor / victims and connect to appropriate systems in the countries where the project takes place.

3. Accountability: Improving the accountability of the humanitarian system for the survivors of SEAH

Abuses of power within the aid sector occur when aid workers feel they can get away with it. They occur when people who have been affected by crisis, conflict, poverty or other situations of violence have little decision-making in how aid is delivered and who delivers it. The aid sector knows it needs address this power imbalance to improve the accountability to those we serve. We must therefore give more decision-making power to the people that aid organisations are supporting by involving the affected people in decisions about their needs and their situations.

This project will take the in-depth learning from the three pilot countries to propose what else is needed to build a more robust internationally grounded accountability system, one that is safe and effective enough for victims, of SEAH.

Again, this will take a dual approach of looking at what is needed from both within and outside the sector to enhance accountability. It will take learning from research and debates on the concept of a humanitarian ombuds, with learning from other sectoral ombuds mechanism, as well as human rights, judicial and legal systems, with the intention of building a more accountable system that truly puts the needs and rights of people at the centre of the response.

For those interested in taking part in the project, do not hesitate to contact our PSEAH Manager, Coline Rapneau, at You can also join our PSEAH and/or AAP communities of practice, or sign up to our CHS Alliance newsletter to be regularly updated about this project and our activities more generally.


[1] The CHS is a framework standard made up of Nine Commitments that aid organisations and individuals, involved in humanitarian response, can use to improve the quality and effectiveness of the assistance they provide. The CHS places communities and people affected by crisis at the centre of humanitarian action