Keeping the safeguarding spotlight shining

Early 2018 presaged an intense focus on safeguarding across the international development sector.

As time has moved on from the intensity of that period, which was a reminder that, as a sector, we should welcome scrutiny and continually ask ourselves:

do our policies, practices and culture as humanitarian organisations really have the vulnerable and dis-empowered at the heart of our safeguarding practice?

We were forced collectively and individually as organisations to analyse whether we could do more to secure the confidence and trust of those who are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.   

Now that safeguarding has once again to compete with all the other priorities within a demanding and complicated sector, it is all the more important that we share our reflections on our safeguarding practices and ensure that they remain an integral part of all the work we do at Islamic Relief.

Islamic Relief and a safeguarding culture

As a faith-based international development organisation programming in over 30 countries worldwide, our approach to safeguarding is an evolving and, we hope, improving practice that requires a great deal of adaptation and understanding.

Our starting point is a commitment to a ‘zero tolerance’ approach that emphasises “the intolerance for sexual exploitation, abuse or harassment in any form.” 

This has to be the aim for the sector and something we aspire to achieve.

The reality, however, is a very complex, involved and uncertain operating environment where we must continually work to understand the power dynamics at play to fulfil this ideal.

Many of the places we work are very vulnerable, as we often arrive immediately following natural disasters or conflict situations where people have immediate survival needs that must be satisfied.

This vulnerability can easily cause dependence on the services we offer and creates a unique situation where the balance of power is skewed disproportionately in the hands of aid givers.  

Additionally, the socio-economic, religious, ethnic and political situations where we work are extremely complex and constantly changing, making it difficult to create a policy or procedure that is simple or forever effective.

As an organisation, Islamic Relief’s Trustees have demanded, and the Board of Directors have committed to, dedicating the necessary time and resources to refresh and embed an effective, responsive and trusted safeguarding infrastructure. 

At the heart of the strategy is the question, “How do we provide for the world’s most vulnerable people while simultaneously providing a space for them to voice their needs and concerns without fear?” One of the first actions we made towards accomplishing this, was understanding that we must not just write safeguarding policies but  fundamentally change the culture of our organisation so that safeguarding is at the core of who we are and permeates everything we do.  

Islamic Relief’s Chair of the Board of Trustees, Lamia El Amri, has become the voice of this cultural shift in our organisation.

Her messaging to our employees and beneficiaries around the world is that we must be beneficiary focused; open; honest, and responsive.

We must also be honest with our donors and communicate what it takes financially to embed effective safeguarding practices into programmes they have funded.  This budget ‘line item’ is an integral as the cost of materials that may build a school. 

With these fundamentals in place, we will be better positioned to respond to the needs of our beneficiaries and to protect them above all else.

Alongside these cultural changes, we have also implemented many structural changes, such as creating policies and procedures, forming a complaints team, and investing in dedicated safeguarding leads and focal points in each of the countries where we work.

Additionally, we have committed to accountability mechanisms, namely the Core Humanitarian Standards, which form part of the assurance mechanism we have in place to track our progress against industry standards and ensure that all incidents are reported and responded to.

Focusing on our front-line: Safeguarding Summit 2019

As the scope of our safeguarding continues to expand in both policy and practice, we recognise the need to invest in the knowledge and training of our safeguarding team.

At the end of October 2019, safeguarding leads and focal points from over 20 different countries are meeting in Istanbul for our first-ever Safeguarding Summit.

The goals of this summit are to better equip our team with the skills they need to work in their challenging and ever-changing environments and to share ideas and experiences to better understand what works and what does not.

We are hopeful that this summit will become a regular practice where we gather to reflect on what we have done and where we want to go, always striving to better serve and protect our beneficiaries in every corner of the globe.

As the glare of attention shifts, Islamic Relief is committing to maintaining the spotlight on our policies and practices on safeguarding and to keep those we support at the heart of the conversation.

Written by Khaleel Desai

Head of Governance – Islamic Relief Worldwide

Khaleel Desai