The Challenge for Syria and Beyond – Can we Investigate Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Remotely Managed Programmes?

Lucy Heaven Taylor

by Lucy Heaven Taylor

Lucy Heaven Taylor is an accountability and PSEA specialist with 17 experience in the sector.

CHS Alliance workshops on Investigating Complaints of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse always provide an opportunity to discuss current issues affecting participants. At one in Istanbul recently, one question kept coming up – how can we respond to sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) in remotely managed programmes?

Challenging contexts

Remote programming is nothing new. Humanitarian agencies have been running remotely managed programmes in locations with restricted access for some years, using various operating models. In response to this, the humanitarian community has developed resources on the subject – such as CHS Alliance member Tearfund’s ‘Monitoring and accountability practices for remotely managed projects implemented in volatile operating environments’. However, at present there is no guidance to address the issue of SEA in remote programming.

Difficult decisions

SEA is hard enough to address in standard operational programmes, let alone remotely managed ones. But remember, if there is a concern or an allegation about your programme, the decision should not be yours to make alone. It is likely to be a process involving programme management, security, and human resources – and may well need to be signed off at the most senior levels of your organisation.

Remember too that the issue should be addressed on a ‘need to know’ basis – only staff essential to decision making should be involved. As the CHS Alliance ‘Guidelines for Investigations’ point out, it is good practice to keep the number of people involved to a minimum. This helps maintain confidentiality.

So what do you need to consider? First of all, decide whether you actually have enough information to form an allegation. If not, are you able to safely and confidentially collect enough information to make a decision on whether to take action – be it an investigation, or a disciplinary process?

If you think you do have sufficient information, the very first thing to do is to undertake a risk assessment, which should involve your organisation’s security advisor. Here are some points to consider:

  • What are the risks to those concerned, for example, the alleged victim, witnesses, and alleged perpetrator? How do they change if you intervene, or if you don’t intervene? Bear in mind that risks to the people involved are much more difficult to control when you are not physically present on the programme site.
  • What are the more general security risks to your staff and programme, and your ability to operate in this location if you do decide to go ahead? Is there risk of retaliation from the community if you don’t address the issue?
  • How serious is the allegation? Does it involve children? Does the severity of the allegation outweigh the risks involved in investigating?
  • If there is a serious and sustained risk to your programme beneficiaries, and you are unable to investigate adequately, does this risk outweigh the benefit of continuing the programme in its current form?

Planning is essential

If you do decide that an investigation is necessary, Save the Children’s International Child Safeguarding Director, Mubarak Maman, advises that you ask this important question: “Is it under your control?” There are lots of consequences, intended and unintended of initiating an investigation.

  • Find out if you have partner staff in the location who are trained to undertake investigations. If so, consider whether they are they able to carry out that function with only remote support – and be aware of any risks to them if they remain in that location after the investigation.
  • Consider conducting the investigation remotely – via Skype or phone. If you do this, you will need to control the environment they are being interviewed in – for example, reducing the possibility that there is another person in the room with the witness that you are not aware of. You might want to ask a trusted partner staff member to oversee the process.
  • In some remote management environments, it may be possible to bring the witnesses to your operating base or another accessible location. Because this may draw unnecessary attention to them, you may want to think of a cover story for the visit.
  • Think about how you will manage any fallout from the investigation. Your organisation’s responsibility doesn’t end when the investigation is complete – there may be an effect on partner staff morale, the relationship with the community, and the possibility of retaliation. Keep monitoring the situation to identify and address these issues if they arise.
  • Plan ways to manage confidentiality, both during and after the investigation – for example, not sending sensitive information by e-mail.

This might all seem too complex and challenging – but as we always emphasise in the workshops, the most important thing is to plan. With careful planning, it may be possible to respond to safeguarding concerns in a remotely managed programme.

Remember also that the key to preventing SEA is awareness raising. Even in remote programmes, it is possible to undertake training on staff conduct, and information campaigns with the affected population so that they know that assistance is their right, and that they do not need to offer anything in return.

Do you have any further considerations to add? Have you encountered this issue in your work? Please send us your comments to info@chsalliance.org.