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Guidance: Safeguarding against sexual exploitation and abuse and harassment (SEAH) in the aid sector

Safeguarding broadly means avoiding harm to people or the environment. Since early 2018, FCDO has been focused on safeguarding against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and Sexual Harassment (SEAH) in the international aid sector.

Our goal is to ensure all those involved in poverty reduction take all reasonable steps to prevent harm, particularly SEAH, from occurring; listen to those who are affected; respond sensitively but robustly when harm or allegations of harm occur; and learn from every case.

FCDO’s work on SEAH looks at both FCDO and the partners we fund with Official Development Assistance (ODA) to deliver development and humanitarian programmes around the world, often with vulnerable people.

In September 2020 FCDO launched a UK Strategy on safeguarding against sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment in the aid sector that applies to all UK Official Development Assistance (ODA) spend. This strategy explains what UK government departments that engage in ODA will do to improve safeguarding standards internally, in partner organisations, and across the whole international aid sector. All UK government ODA spending departments signed up to the strategy.

This site provides an overview of FCDO’s work and points to guidance for those working in the aid sector on how to safeguard their people and programmes.

At FCDO we use the UN definitions for SEAH:

  • Sexual exploitation: any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust for sexual purposes. Includes profiting momentarily, socially, or politically from sexual exploitation of another. Under UN regulations it includes transactional sex, solicitation of transactional sex and exploitative relationship.

  • Sexual abuse: the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions. It should cover sexual assault (attempted rape, kissing / touching, forcing someone to perform oral sex / touching) as well as rape. Under UN regulations, all sexual activity with someone under the age of 18 is considered to be sexual abuse.

  • Sexual harassment: a continuum of unacceptable and unwelcome behaviours and practices of a sexual nature that may include, but are not limited to, sexual suggestions or demands, requests for sexual favours and sexual, verbal or physical conduct or gestures, that are or might reasonably be perceived as offensive or humiliating.


FCDO’s safeguarding standards

FCDO expects all partners we work with to take all reasonable steps to safeguard the people they come into contact with (including staff and the communities in which programmes are delivered) from SEAH. FCDO holds ourselves to at least the same high standards we expect of our partners.

Along with other OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) donors, we adhere to 2 sets of international minimum standards on tackling SEAH:

For partners under an accountable grant or MoU, these standards are reflected in our Enhanced Due Diligence on Safeguarding guidance. All FCDO partners delivering a programme via an accountable grant or MoU must have an enhanced due diligence assessment in place before funding is dispersed to assess risks and the organisation’s adherence to these standards (there are some exceptions in humanitarian crisis response where the due diligence can be conducted at a later date to enable quick dispersal of funds to reach those in urgent need).

For partners under a contract, the standards are reflected in our Supply Partner Code of Conduct and Terms and Conditions. The Supply Partner Code of Conduct will also apply to partners with whom FCDO has an accountable grant from late 2019.

Overview of 6 key safeguarding standards in FCDO’s enhanced due diligence.

The safeguarding principles that will underpin all our due diligence are as follows:

  • everyone has responsibility for safeguarding
  • do no harm
  • organisations have a safeguarding duty of care to beneficiaries, staff and volunteers, including where down-stream partners are part of delivery. This includes children and vulnerable adults in the community who are not direct beneficiaries but may be vulnerable to abuse
  • act with integrity, be transparent and accountable
  • all activity is done in the best interests of the child/vulnerable person
  • a child is defined as someone under the age of 18 regardless of the age of majority/consent in country
  • all children shall be treated equally, irrespective of race, gender, religion/or none, sexual orientation or disability
  • organisations that work with children and vulnerable adults should apply a safeguarding lens to their promotional communications and fundraising activities

How to report a safeguarding concern to FCDO

If you are in immediate danger, call the police if safe to do so or your relevant security team.

Any concerns about sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment (SEAH) relating to FCDO staff or programmes should be reported to FCDO’s dedicated Safeguarding Investigations Team via:

If you are unsure whether to report a concern, then please contact us via the email address above for advice.

It is possible to report concerns anonymously and FCDO will treat all reported concerns in confidence. We will consider whether onward referral is appropriate. In some cases this could be to the National Crime Agency (NCA), Charity Commission, police or other relevant authority.

FCDO expects its programme partners to have mechanisms in place to prevent SEAH, to facilitate reporting and also to respond sensitively but robustly when cases are reported.

FCDO’s commitments on safeguarding

FCDO is holding ourselves to at least the same high standards we expect of our partners on safeguarding against SEAH.

UK SEAH Safeguarding Strategy

In September 2020 FCDO launched a UK Strategy on safeguarding against sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment in the aid sector that applies to all UK Official Development Assistance (ODA) spend. This strategy explains what UK government departments that engage in ODA will do to improve safeguarding standards internally, in partner organisations, and across the whole international aid sector. All UK government ODA spending departments signed up to the strategy.

Donor commitments from the Safeguarding Summit

Twenty-two donors, including all UK Government Departments who spend Official Development Assistance, signed up to commitments at the 18 October 2018 Safeguarding Summit. Donors agreed to report back on progress.

Cross-sector progress report

FCDO has also worked with the other 8 key groups who made commitments at the 18 October 2018 Safeguarding Summit donors, UN, IFIs, UK NGOs, UK private sector, UK research funders, CDC and Gavi and the Global Fund, and also the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement who made related commitments in 2019 – to drive sector change. A one-year-on progress report and a 2019-20 progress report have been published.

FCDO progress report

FCDO has published a one-year-on progress report and a 2019-20 progress report with further detail on the action that has been taken within the department to take forward the commitments made at the Safeguarding Summit.

DAC Recommendation on Ending Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment in Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Assistance

In July 2019, The Development Assistance Committee (DAC) Recommendation on Ending Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment in Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Assistance was adopted. It provides a coherent framework for aid agencies and their implementing partners to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment (SEAH) and respond better if it does occur.

The Recommendation is a strong signal that SEAH in the aid sector will not be tolerated. The Recommendation was developed by a small team co-chaired by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), Ireland and Austria and working with the DAC Secretariat. It has been endorsed by all 30 DAC members and will be monitored through the DAC peer review mechanism.

International Development Committee’s inquiry into sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector

The IDC published a report following their 2018 inquiry into SEA in the aid sector and a subsequent follow-up report in Oct 2019. A third IDC inquiry into ‘SEA in the aid sector – next steps’ concluded in January 2021 and HMG’s response was published by the IDC in April 2021. The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) is are conducting a review in 2021-2022.

FCDO’s annual report

FCDO reports to Parliament annually, including on safeguarding. You can read the latest report from July 2020.

G7 declarations

The UK was part of the 2018 G7 Whistler Declaration on protection from sexual exploitation and abuse in international assistance. During the 2021 UK Presidency G7 countries reaffirmed their commitment to tackling SEAH.

FCDO safeguarding news

Safeguarding resources

Summary of findings from central assurance assessments of FCDO partners

A summary report from safeguarding-specific Central Assurance Assessments carried out on 31 civil-society organisations that FCDO funds.

FCDO enhanced due diligence: safeguarding for external partners

Guidance for partners on FCDO’s safeguarding standards and how they will be used in enhanced due diligence assessments (DDAs) to assess an organisation’s ability to protect children, young people and vulnerable adults they work with, as well as their own staff and volunteers, from sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment.

Sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment in the aid sector: victims and survivor voices listening exercise

Findings from a FCDO listening exercise
with a diverse range of both southern and international representatives of victims and survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment.

Safeguarding Summit 2018: are you listening?

This audio-visual presentation contains anonymised accounts by victims and survivors of SEAH by aid workers. The quotes are drawn from existing published sources and the voices in the recording are those of volunteers (mainly FCDO staff) whose identities are not disclosed. We did not interview or record victims / survivors directly in order to avoid retraumatizing individuals and ensure all accounts are anonymous. The voices do not necessarily match the characteristics of the victim / survivor.

Watch the introductory video: Are you listening?

Charity Commission: safeguarding

Guidance on safeguarding from the charity regulator for England and Wales.

Safeguarding resource and support hub

The FCDO funded Resource and Support Hub was announced at the October 2018 London Safeguarding Summit. It provides resources and guidance to support smaller, under resourced organisations in the Global South who deliver international aid to strengthen their safeguarding policy and practice against SEAH. The online platform is live alongside 3 country hubs in Ethiopia, South Sudan and Nigeria. Further national hubs will be launched in 2021 and 2022.

The programme is led by Options who oversee a diverse consortium consisting of Social Development Direct, Terres des hommes, Sightsavers and GCPS Consulting.

External guidance

Safeguarding online course

Introduction to Safeguarding in the International Aid Sector – developed by the Open University with funding from FCDO, is a free online course to help those working on safeguarding within aid organisations to lead, develop and implement strong safeguarding policies and practices. The first module launched in April 2021 and the second is due later in 2021.

Disability inclusive child safeguarding guidelines

People with disabilities are often at an increased risk of SEAH and we need to ensure that they are not forgotten or left behind when safeguarding programmes. Able Child Africa have produced Disability Inclusive Child Safeguarding Guidelines with FCDO support that can be used by staff and our partners.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO)

The NCVO have safeguarding guidance for those working overseas on their website.

SEAH infrastructure tool (PDF, 1.12MB, 41 pages)

Infrastructure & Cities for Economic Development (ICED) have developed a tool, commissioned by FCDO, to help organisations identify and mitigate SEAH risks.

Bond: Safeguarding guidance resources and tools

Guidance on safeguarding from Bond, the UK network for organisations working in international development.

Bond: report-handling toolkit

FCDO-funded toolkit providing principles and core elements of a safeguarding report-handling mechanism. Includes:

Bond: Online safeguarding culture and leadership tool

FCDO funded discussion-based tool to support leaders of organisations to understand what a positive safeguarding culture looks like.

Scottish Alliance: safeguarding resources

Guidance on safeguarding from the Scottish Alliance, the network for international development organisations based or represented in Scotland

Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability

Inter-Agency Standing Committee Minimum Operating Standards on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

One of 2 sets of minimum standards adhered to by members of the OECD DAC. IASC have also published a related Best Practice Guide on Inter-Agency Community-Based Complaints Mechanisms.

UN: preventing sexual exploitation and abuse

Website outlining UN action and guidance on progress against the UN Secretary General’s 2003 Special Measures Report on protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. Includes Fact sheets on UN initiatives and quarterly reports on allegations in UN Field Missions and System-wide.

UKCDR guidance on safeguarding in international research

UK Collaborative on Development Research (UKCDR) has published guidance on how to ensure the highest safeguarding standards in the context of international development research and how to implement it during the current Covid-19 pandemic. They have also published their report on the international consultation process.

Humanitarian Quality Assurance Initiative (HQAI)

HQAI is an independent auditor for the humanitarian and development sector that verifies adherence to the Core Humanitarian Standard.

Safeguarding Summit 2018

On 18 October 2018, the UK government hosted an international summit in London – Putting People First: Tackling Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment in the Aid Sector – to drive collective action to better prevent and respond to SEAH.

Representatives from across the sector attended and 8 sets of commitment documents were presented from different groups of organisations (donors, UN, IFIs, UK NGOs, UK private sector, UK research funders, CDC and Gavi and the Global Fund).

Watch the live recording of the event.

Read the speech made at the summit by the then International Development Secretary

FCDO chairs a Cross-Sector Safeguarding Steering Group with representatives of those that made commitments at the summit.

UK NGO Safeguarding Summit March 2018

The 18 October 2018 international summit was preceded by a summit for UK NGOs held on 5 March 2018. Read the joint statement from that summit.

Employment cycle initiatives

FCDO is supporting 3 initiatives focused on the employment cycle which aim to prevent perpetrators moving around the aid sector undetected and improve information sharing between organisations and with law enforcement.

Project Soteria

FCDO, in partnership with INTERPOL established Project SOTERIA, focused on the criminal aspects of sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment in the international aid sector. The project seeks to establish an advanced level of collaboration between law enforcement agencies and aid sector organizations in order to prevent sexual offenders from using their positions to access and offend against children and vulnerable adults. It aims to work initially in Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia .The project includes:

  • capacity building for law enforcement: enhancing the capacity of law enforcement to use more effectively criminal record keeping to manage sex offenders as well as increase their awareness and understanding on the issue of sexual abuse in the context of aid work
  • information sharing and notices: promoting the use of INTERPOL Green and Purple Notices to disseminate intelligence internationally and reinforce border management capacity to assess and use this information to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse
  • criminal analysis and investigative support: developing a central understanding of the nature, location and patterns of sexual abuse and exploitation by aid sector staff with the ultimate goal to inform prevention and response measures
  • assistance to the aid sector: building bridges for cross-sector collaboration between the aid sector and law enforcement communities to jointly address the threat
  • threat identification scheme (TIS) pilot: offering the possibility to selected pilot aid sector organizations to send INTERPOL information on their newly-hired candidates to identify individuals that could pose a risk to vulnerable adults and children
  • digital solutions: using a Global Knowledge Hub platform to provide a space to share non-operational, non-personal data; distributing the INTERPOL Baseline (list of hashes of Child Abuse images) to the aid sector and supporting its usage

Misconduct Disclosure Scheme

The Inter-Agency Scheme for the Disclosure of Safeguarding-related Misconduct in Recruitment Process within the Humanitarian and Development Sector provides a framework for organisations working in the aid sector to share information about someone’s sexual misconduct during employment via a disclosure form. Signatories to the scheme are able to do this while respecting relevant legal and regulatory requirements. The sharing of this information has the potential to prevent perpetrators of SEAH from moving around the aid sector.

Implementation data on the Misconduct Disclosure Scheme.

Aid Worker Registration Scheme

The aim of the Aid Worker Registration Scheme is to close the loop on individuals who work in the sector but abuse others, whilst equipping those who conduct themselves appropriately with a trusted source of evidence that details their positive work history.

The steering committee for this project commissioned a legal review to guide progress, which was published in July 2020.

Safeguarding during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is global and unprecedented in scale. In past epidemics safeguarding risks have increased and therefore it is vital that efforts to safeguard against SEAH should be seen as lifesaving, not optional. Sectors that are scaling up as part of the response such as health, humanitarian, social protection, education and infrastructure need to be especially vigilant to the risk of SEAH increasing and proactive in ensuring that it is a central component of the coordinated response.

FCDO has developed guidance notes on covid-19 for FCDO staff and implementing partners on how to prevent and address SEAH in programmes during COVID-19 (PDF, 187KB, 4 pages) and how to ensure that safeguarding is embedded in programmes providing COVID-19 assistance (PDF, 224KB, 5 pages). It describes who is at increased risk of SEAH and provides practical suggestions for programme managers on what concrete actions they can take when working with partners to address SEAH in situations such as lockdown or rapid expansion of humanitarian action. There is further guidance signposted via the Resource and Support Hub.


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