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Child safeguarding in international development

16 March 2021 at 7:00 am
No matter how good intentioned international development is, good intentions do not safeguard children. We must increase the pace to improve child safeguarding practices and work with urgency to meet the 2030 Agenda, writes Donna Webb. 

Contributor | 16 March 2021 at 7:00 am


Child safeguarding in international development
16 March 2021 at 7:00 am

No matter how good intentioned international development is, good intentions do not safeguard children. We must increase the pace to improve child safeguarding practices and work with urgency to meet the 2030 Agenda, writes Donna Webb. 

It feels like yesterday that the global community applied its laser focus to transition from the millennium development goals to the 17 sustainable development goals. But, actually, there are only nine years left to achieve the 2030 Agenda, which amongst its 169 targets aims to end all forms of violence and exploitation of children. It’s not a new ambition that children have the right to safety. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child became a legally binding international instrument in 1990 and is today ratified by every country in the world, except one. 

And yet, several recent enquiries, including the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, as well as multiple high-profile cases in the international development sector, have exposed alarming rates of abuse, neglect and exploitation of children by the very organisations that exist to protect these rights and support the achievement of the SDGs. 

The international development sector has and continues to work at pace to improve child safeguarding practices, but we must increase the pace and work with urgency in order to meet the 2030 Agenda. Lessons learned since the early 2000s have made clear that no matter how good intentioned international development is, good intentions do not safeguard children. 

Instead, safeguarding requires purposeful and consistent action. This means making sure staff and volunteers, operations, policy and procedures, and programs, including those delivered in partnership with other organisations, do not harm children. It also means that when there are concerns about children’s safety that they are responded to, including reporting to appropriate authorities. 

To embed a child safe culture, organisations must identify, mitigate, register, and continuously monitor child safety risks at a systems level, as well as at a site, program, and activity level. To do this it is necessary to understand where children engage with the organisation. This could include programs delivered directly to children. It could also be where children are indirectly impacted, such as where the direct beneficiaries are their parents or carers. Increasingly, work is shifting online and international development must consider the emerging risks associated with a greater virtual presence. 

Organisations must have a written child safeguarding policy that describes how harm will be prevented. The policy should be published and available for all. We recommend that policy is presented in a range of ways so that it is as accessible as possible. Consider translation, child friendly versions, posters, or other ways to promote the policy.

Ensure there are procedures that translate policy into child safe action, including any steps that will be taken if there are concerns or an incident occurs. The procedures should detail people’s specific responsibilities and accountabilities and be context specific. For example, some key challenges faced by organisations working in international development are that protection systems in some countries sometimes do not exist or are emerging, leaving organisations facing complex child protection dilemmas. It is important that the legal, social and child protection contexts are understood and incorporated into procedures.

Complaints process

Graph showing child Safeguarding in international development

The process to provide feedback or to make a complaint needs to be well known and easy to navigate for children. There should be processes in place to maintain confidentiality and protect information. Feedback and complaints must be followed up and reports made both internally and externally. It is vital that any and all complaints or concerns about the conduct of staff are investigated through a clear process and that the organisation delivers on a clear commitment to report. 

It is vital to be intentional and specific about how organisations select their people. However difficult it is to contemplate; it remains true that perpetrators of child abuse continue to seek work in international development. Recruitment and screening processes must include child safeguarding at every step: job descriptions, advertisements, short listing, interviewing, reference checking. Require employment screening that includes working with children checks and police or criminal checks. We know that working in different jurisdictions with different labour laws, and in particular varying screening legislation and processes adds extra challenges. Therefore, it is important to ensure your organisation has mapped and understands the context of where programs are being delivered to adapt recruitment approaches according to risk. We know the pressure to recruit quickly is real especially when responding to emergencies. Introducing retrospective processes to apply to your emergency deployment lists provides assurances. 

Once recruited, ensure that staff, volunteers, contractors and partners have clear child safeguarding responsibilities and expectations and are supported to understand them. Induct new recruits into the child safety policy and procedures. Everyone, no exceptions, must sign onto a child safeguarding code of conduct that clearly describes professional boundaries when working with children. These boundaries must take into consideration the additional vulnerabilities that children face when they are interacting with international development programming. Ongoing child safeguarding training should be a requirement for all people in the organisation and there should be frequent supportive discussions about child safety through supervision or line management meetings. 

Last in this article, but critical to success, is that children themselves must be central to the international development approach to child safeguarding. 

“You can have all the documents and policies in the world, but if you don’t have an organisation where children are listened to – where they actually feel safe, then nothing else matters.” (Child Wise) 

Children must participate and ultimately be empowered to shape both the service they are receiving and the way that each of the components of child safeguarding are implemented through that service. To do this, international development must continue to honestly factor the power imbalance between the organisation delivering the service and the child receiving the service.

Photo of a young child smiling

What next?

Strengthening child safeguarding requires international development organisations to address the risks to children from its people and partnerships, services, programs, and operations. The better an organisation understands its risk the better it can work to prevent harm from occurring and risk is best understood when children themselves are engaged in the discussion. 

Child Wise are experts in reviewing child safeguarding risks and we are passionate about empowering children’s agency. We work with organisations across Australia and internationally that provide services to children to help them build a strong child safe culture and environment. 

To find out more about how Child Wise can help your organisation’s child safeguarding please call 1300 244 539 or email


About the author: Donna Webb is the head of global safeguarding at Child Wise.

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