Five Actions to Address Sexual Exploitation, Abuse, and Harassment in Development Projects

Exploitation and abuse on development projects has wide ranging impacts. Photo: Matthew Henry
Exploitation and abuse on development projects has wide ranging impacts. Photo: Matthew Henry

By Malika Shagazatova, Ingrid FitzGerald

Sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment impact not only victims but entire communities, undermining trust in development projects. Effective case handling, legal frameworks, and capacity building are essential for addressing these challenges globally.

Sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment (SEAH) is a form of gender-based violence which can occur within development operations. This type of abuse has an immeasurable impact not only on victims and survivors, majority of which are women and children, but also on the broader community as trust and ownership of project results are compromised.  

Multilateral development banks and other development organizations, as well as donors, are prioritizing the prevention and response to sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment. As a result, more abuses of power are coming to light from survivor reports and whistleblowers.

When such cases are reported they require careful and professional handling by organizations and local law enforcement agencies as cases are sensitive and complex. Unfortunately, they are not always handled this way.

Our research into this topic found that country legal frameworks and institutional systems addressing the problem and supporting response systems are crucial. Investigations and actions to address complaints cannot be conducted effectively if there is no policy or legal framework in place. While stronger national laws are essential, and are more often now in place,  effective enforcement is necessary to protect women and children affected by sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment in projects. Institutional policies and practices in counterpart government agencies must support the implementation of safeguarding approaches and guide decisions on how to handle and respond to complaints.

Although the majority of victims/survivors are women and girls from project communities, most investigative teams do not reflect this demographic. Bringing in international investigators entails additional travel and translation costs. They must also be supported by experts working with different project stakeholders, including the particularly vulnerable, such as minors.

External investigators may also have a limited grasp of the local culture, gender dynamics, and other situational factors which may affect their interaction with survivors and witnesses. On the other hand, training and developing a pool of investigators at the country level is not a one-off effort and is time and cost intensive. New investigators should be given the opportunity to work with experienced professionals to gain essential practical skills. 

Some sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment complaints clearly warrant immediate action, such as reporting to the authorities or sanctioning the offender. However, before deciding whether an investigation is needed, two things must be kept in mind: the well-being of the survivors should be always prioritized, and efforts made to ensure their safety and access to support services; and evidence gathered from verifying the facts should inform immediate remedial actions and longer-term approaches to prevent similar incidents from happening again.

A clear standard of proof is needed for sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment investigations. Globally, the recommended standard of proof for such investigations is “the balance of probabilities”, which means that it needs to be more probable than not, rather than certain or beyond reasonable doubt, that an incident occurred.

This avoids putting the burden of proof on victims and survivors, and increases access to justice and trust in reporting and response systems.  Even when the result of the investigation does not confirm that the allegation has been substantiated, this doesn’t mean that the incident didn’t take place, just that there was no sufficient evidence to confirm the “higher likelihood” that misconduct occurred. Investigation reports can still inform proactive remedial measures, such as strengthening the code of conduct, mandatory training for all staff, and enhancing reporting and response mechanisms.

Executing and implementing agencies and contractors may have limited leverage to discipline perpetrators and protect whistleblowers. It’s difficult to terminate employment contracts or impose disciplinary measures when there are no clear grounds or guidance in local labor laws, employment contracts, or worker codes of conduct. It is also difficult to protect a whistleblower or complainant from retaliatory actions when systems are not fully integrated in agencies’ policies and practices.

By championing a culture of safeguarding and making it clear that inaction on sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment will not be tolerated, development organizations can support a significant change in attitudes and behaviors in development operations.

These five actions can help developing countries, and their partners, to address these issues:

Coordinate with donors. Donor collaboration is critical to take collective action, build capacity of local service providers (government and civil society organizations), raise awareness, and address legal and institutional gaps in prevention and response. This is fundamental, especially in small, fragile and conflict-affected situations.

Pool resources and expertise. Donors should consider how best to leverage financial and technical resources and support local gender-based violence service systems, so they are not overstretched and can access the necessary means to effectively implement response measures.  Sharing knowledge and best practices and continued learning and skills development of service providers should be prioritized to support better access and quality of gender-based violence services for survivors.

Streamline safeguard standards. Donors and development institutions are actively working on developing and strengthening their own approaches and requirements for preventing and addressing sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment risks in donor-supported projects in developing countries. Use of different language and definitions, multiple layers of reporting, donor-specific risk assessment and provisions in project documents, and different procurement requirements increase the administrative burden on organizations in navigating these requirements, especially in co-financed projects. 

Supporting implementing agencies. Development organizations should help implementing agencies to develop and operationalize their own institutional systems and protocols for receiving and responding to sexual abuse, exploitation and harassment complaints, allocate sufficient human and financial resources to support such systems, and importantly, address gaps in national legal and regulatory frameworks through policy dialogue and provision of technical expertise. Technical assistance to help government counterparts build their capacity and effectively implement robust safeguarding measures is critical to establish systems that support a shared approach. 

Establish a regional community of practice for experts.  Addressing sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment is an emerging, sensitive, and challenging area of work, which cuts across gender and safeguards, gender-based violence and child protection. Sharing good practices and challenges among experts working in the region can help strengthen coordinated response efforts. Regional communities of practice can also help to develop consistent, context specific, and common safeguarding approaches. 

By championing a culture of safeguarding and making it clear that inaction on sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment will not be tolerated, development organizations can support a significant change in attitudes and behaviours in development operations. 

This will result in fewer people, particularly women and girls, being harmed.