This post first appeared on “ALNAP” and is re-posted here.
In the wake of the scandal in Haiti revolving around sexual misconduct by Oxfam staff in the aftermath of the 2010 Earthquake, the aid sector is now engaging in ‘safeguarding’ exercises. While initially based on a UK legal definition that applied to vulnerable adults and children, safeguarding has acquired a broader meaning, which includes all actions by aid actors to protect staff from harm (abuse, sexual harassment and violence) and to ensure staff do not harm beneficiaries. However, despite good intentions, I suggest that the safeguarding response has some problematic qualities which need to be discussed. Here I will focus on two:
Formulating inclusive and informed safeguarding
First, as we move from arguments for the legitimacy of safeguarding initiatives, to a discussion of the legitimacy of how they are implemented, there has been vocal concern about the lack of inclusivity to this extent. Critics have noted that a “safeguarding industry was hatched, and experts magically appeared and promises of change were made’ with little attention to local and national contexts or participation.
These types of objections speak to the sector’s long-standing struggle with bottom-up accountability. The view that safeguarding is yet another Western-centric practice, and frustrated complaints about the absence of meaningful field participation and local consultations when formulating safeguarding approaches, need to be taken seriously and addressed carefully – with the cognisance that the underlying issues of discontent go much beyond safeguarding.
However, I think we need to be clear that technical and ‘programming’ conversations around safeguarding also expose difficult and normally ‘hidden’ contestations over privilege, power and race. Where long-standing struggles of women of colour in aid crash head-on into the whiteness of the Me Too movement, the whiteness of ‘humanitarian feminism’ and the whiteness of the sector more generally. Here I think the sector – including reform minded individuals – could be more honest about who is around the table and why, and display a greater willingness to engage: this type of conversation is and will be uncomfortable – but if we want to go anywhere with safeguarding, so be it.
Establishing clarity not de facto criminalisation
The second issue pertains to the inherent vagueness and malleability of the concept. While problems in the sector are frequently attributed to a ‘lack of clear definition’ of an emerging challenge, something else seems to be at play here. At its core, the idea of safeguarding is to reinforce the humanitarian imperative to Do No Harm, by preventing ‘sexual abuse and exploitation’. Humanitarians have long been concerned about this and tried to do something about it. For decades, sexual exploitation has been considered the worst possible behaviour humanitarian workers can be guilty of, but it has perhaps not been quite so clear what constitutes exploitation and which relationships exploitation takes place in.
Previously too many behaviours and relationships were left out of the equation for behavioural mores in the sector – but are we on the road to leaving too many in today? Is safeguarding at risk of becoming some sort of moral trojan horse that implants new social and political struggles into the humanitarian space?
I am here particularly thinking about transactional sex. The interpretation of what safeguarding means is also shaped by changing cultural perceptions of transactional sex and prostitution, primarily in the Global North. While the Me Too campaign is of very recent date, it links up with a more longstanding trend in big donor countries, namely the de facto criminalisation of prostitution by criminalising the buyer. Whereas Codes of Conduct have been promoted as a key mechanism for governing the sexual behaviour of humanitarian workers, the act of buying sex is increasingly construed legally and ideologically as a criminal practice.
In my view, this is possibly the most difficult field of social practice covered by safeguarding, and where it is vital to think carefully so that one can navigate the fine line between justifiable moral censure and moralistic outrage. Is moralistic outrage necessarily a bad thing? The view appears to be emerging that paying for sex, anywhere and at any time, is incompatible with being a ‘good’ humanitarian worker and dependable employee; the distinction between paying for sex and exploiting someone for sex is being erased.
While buying sex in the 1980s, for example, appears to have been a fairly common practice in the aid world (broadly defined), much of the moral indignation previously linked to prostitution and aid was linked to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the fact that buying sex helped spread the epidemic at home and abroad. Today, in such donor countries as Canada, France, Iceland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden, buying sex is illegal and is punished with fines or prison sentences. At the same time, criminalisation remains extremely controversial, and the extent of this controversy is perhaps getting lost as the abolitionist approach travels to the humanitarian space.
Global prostitution activism has long been an ideological battlefield, with a seemingly unbridgeable abyss between those who see prostitution as violence against women and those who want it regulated as work, regardless of gender. What are the costs and trade-offs of transporting this battlefield into humanitarian practice? While I am not aware of any comprehensive effort to track the consequences of criminalisation for sex workers, new research indicates that vulnerable women in prostitution become more vulnerable through criminalisation in the Global North.
Thus, when trying to gauge an appropriate scope for the idea of safeguarding, I think it is necessary to reflect on the usefulness (and normative appropriateness) of maintaining a strong conceptual distinction between procuring sexual services from individuals receiving aid or falling under protection mandates, from sex workers who are not recipients of aid nor in a position of vulnerability in a specific humanitarian field setting.
It is now widely recognised that buying sex in emergencies rests on deep power differences, is fundamentally unacceptable and as such threatens the legitimacy of the sector. While this recognition is long overdue, its emergence should be seen as progress. However, this does not imply that safeguarding practices should be used as a vehicle for criminalising buyers and abolishing prostitution going forward.