Mind our language

We’re trying to keep people safe, but could our language be causing harm?

There is currently much stimulating discussion in the international development sector about the language we use to describe our work, as we strive to ‘decolonise aid’ (for an accessible analysis of the main issues, read this report by Peace Direct).

If we are serious about shifting resources, decision-making and power, it is vital that we change the language and images we use. Depicting people in low income countries as helpless, passive and grateful recipients of aid, is both inaccurate and harmful. But it goes beyond that.

Our work to ensure the protection and safety of the people we work with is a case in point.

In recent years, there has been a welcome and increased focus on holding ourselves to account as a sector, to ensure that our projects and programmes do no harm to the people we aim to support. Whether that harm is intentional or unintentional, we must demonstrate the ways in which we prevent it from happening and, if harm is done, to make sure that people can speak out and report it, and something will be done about it.

But in the urgency to bring about change and demonstrate we’re changing, are we repeating old mistakes? Are we building such a complex web of alien language, frameworks, policies and approaches around keeping people safe that we are in danger of losing sight of the very people we are meant to be protecting

The growth of ‘safeguarding’

Since 2018, and the crises surrounding revelations of sexual exploitation in the sector, a lot has been learnt about how to prevent and respond to abuse. The term ‘safeguarding’ has been adapted from the UK context to the international development sector, and donor requirements necessitate detailed policy and practice. Safeguarding is now an essential component of most due diligence frameworks.

But many languages in many countries do not have a direct translation for safeguarding.

Where did the term safeguarding come from?

The concept of safeguarding started to become popular in the UK around 2002 – first introduced to broaden the scope and thinking around the protection of the child, following a series of harrowing abuse cases in the UK.

Prevention measures and multi-agency working were given more attention and it was felt that the term protection was too narrow, focusing mostly on response to abuse. Over time, policies and practice started to include keeping adults safe, too, particularly those considered to be most vulnerable.

Safeguarding became an agreed term in the UK and has more recently been transferred around the world via the UK international development sector.

What we’re finding

The term has been introduced alongside complex frameworks, in the context of due diligence scrutiny, with all the conditions and concern surrounding whether or not the grant will be given if an organisation succeeds or fails to ‘do safeguarding right’.

As an organisation working in this area for a long time, ChildHope and our partners now offer support to other organisations who are new to safeguarding. Many don’t work directly with children and haven’t been through the process of developing child protection policies. For these organisations, safeguarding causes much anxiety, and much of it understandable, given the implications of ‘failure’ to get it right. Sadly, when we first introduce ourselves to a new team, we can sometimes sense a resistance, even hostility.

Group body language is asking “What is this alien concept being imposed on us?”

Fortunately, most organisations do want to keep people safe. They recognize that we all have a duty to ensure children and adults understand why we are involved in their lives and what we are doing. They agree that everyone should be able to participate in developing the work, to speak out if they think something is wrong, and expect a good response to any problems they raise.

So, when we work with a new team, we encourage people to first set aside their apprehension about the multi-page guidance they’ve been getting stressed about.

At the heart and start of the discussions are some simple, core questions, carefully explored, with as many people as possible who are engaged in the project.

What makes you feel safe?

What makes you feel unsafe?

How can we work together to ensure you feel safe?

Starting from people’s own experiences and working outwards, discussion can go beyond simply ticking the boxes in the required frameworks. From this base, policy and practice can be developed to include the responsibility of individuals, organisations, communities and societies, covering both response and prevention in a range of contexts.

It is possible to get over the initial anxieties, but it is important to consider what has generated such difficulties, and was it necessary? Could we be doing it differently?

Lessons learnt

Keeping people safe needs to be at the heart of organisational cultures. It needs to be owned and championed by leaders and implemented by everyone. It needs to be threaded through everything we do. It is neither a simple ‘quick fix’ nor a one-time activity. The policies and practice should be continually monitored, assessed and adapted.

Perhaps the next time we want to respond to a crisis in the countries we work in, particularly a crisis we are responsible for creating, we should look to the people in the communities in those countries, to frame the solutions? And shouldn’t we first go to those most likely to be abused and exploited, yet in many cases least likely to be asked: children and young people; disabled people; people who are most financially insecure; girls and women? What are their lived realities? How do the norms and systems in society affect them and their capacity to be safe? What can we do, beyond written policies and check-lists, to make them safer? And how should we talk about it?

It is not simply about a word that people find difficult to understand. It’s about people’s meaningful participation in development. And, until we start to take this seriously, we will continue to risk harming the people we are trying to keep safe.