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Safeguarding policies, politics and voices

Read the summary of two articles by Dr Daoust and Dr Dyvik on safeguarding in international development.

This piece summarises two journal articles by Daoust and Dyvik (2020; 2021) both of which discuss safeguarding policies in the context of international development work. We believe that many of the arguments the two authors put forward are applicable and relevant also in relation to academic research and that they provide several interesting points for reflection on how safeguarding can be contextualised and made relevant for a range of contexts. We invite you to read the summary of the two articles and then to discuss the topics they cover.

In their review of international aid organizations’ safeguarding policies, Daoust and Dyvik (2021) note that ‘safeguarding’ has now become a buzzword, but that safeguarding as a concept has not yet been sufficiently scrutinised and theorised. Following the revelations of malpractice that engulfed large aid organisations in 2018, those working with people in international development contexts are required to put in place safeguarding policies to prevent exploitation and harm. This requirement has been extended also to all research projects that work with partners in Overseas Development Aid (ODA) recipient countries, which are publicly funded by the UK Research and Innovation body through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) scheme. This aims to prevent anyone who is engaged in a research project, in any capacity, from exploiting others or harm them in any way, as well as requiring that appropriate mechanisms are in place to address any occurrences of malpractice.

While, as Daoust and Dyvik (2021) argue, the demands for safeguarding policies in international aid work are ostensibly put in place to protect those they are meant to assist, the way in which they are currently developed actually serves to obscure the systems of oppression and disadvantage that can put people at risk of harm. With one exception, all the safeguarding policies they reviewed, in fact, construe abuse and harm an individual issue and, in so doing, end up depoliticising it. The authors note that the power imbalances and inequalities that lie at the heart of exploitation, harm and abuse, which safeguarding policies ostensibly aim to prevent, are not individualised problems but, rather, are issues deeply rooted in relationships “[…] characterized by disparities in status, income, and other sets of privileges and disadvantage […]” (Daoust and Dyvik, 2021 p. 13).

Framing safeguarding as an issue that pertains to individuals, the authors further argue, allows the systemic and widespread causes of harm and abuse to go undenounced, thus effectively depoliticising them. Instead, they should openly acknowledge and work to change challenges that are deeply rooted in gendered, racialised, and ableist systems of oppression, often also shaped by legacies of colonialism. Rather than ignoring these systems of oppression, NGOs (but also – by extension – research teams) working with partners in ODA recipient countries should confront the issues of power imbalance and ‘re-politicise’ violence, exploitation, and harm, ensuring that the structural inequalities that allow some people to exploit others are challenged and fundamentally changed.

To ensure effective safeguarding and to challenge structural inequalities agencies and researchers could work to empower the people they work with to know their rights; engage with local feminist and LGBT groups; and challenge the racialised, gendered and colonial structures which create fertile ground for exploitation and harm on an ongoing basis. In an earlier article, Daoust and Dyvik (2020), also point out how safeguarding policies are almost invariably drawn up by the Global North organisations and only make references to ‘local’ concerns, practices and understandings as a way to contextualise procedures and implementation. However, the expertise that informs the safeguarding policies lies with the Western partner, an expertise that the contextualisation in local practices only aims to confirm. This is often the case also for research, where Global South partners are called to ‘translate’ and implement safeguarding policies, but never to design them in the first place. This disparity rests on the assumption that organisations/institutions of the Global North are the ones who hold universally applicable knowledge and expertise, while the ‘local’ partners only hold ‘local’ knowledge. Quoting Berenstain (2016), the authors stress how the demands to Global South partners for translation and ‘contextualisation’ of safeguarding policies created by Global North partners can amount to ‘epistemic exploitation’ – i.e. the exploitation of knowledge – as those in positions of privilege demand that those who are marginalised do the work of contextualising “[…] while dismissing their knowledge and/or excluding them from the “realm of recognized knowledge creators”” (Daoust and Dyvik, 2020 p.97)


Daoust, G. and Dyvik, S. (2020) Knowing safeguarding: The geopolitics of knowledge production in the humanitarian and development sector. Geoforum 112: 96-99.

Daoust, G. and Dyvik, S. (2021) Reconceptualising vulnerability and safeguarding in the humanitarian and development sector. Social Politics 00(0): 1-24.

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Safeguarding in Collaborative Research and International Development: Contexts, Challenges, and Opportunities

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