State of the Humanitarian System 2022 | Briefing: Prevention of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment

20 Dec 2022

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High-profile scandals within the study period gave momentum to the prevention of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment (PSEAH), resulting in new inter-agency mechanisms and a noticeable rise in resourcing. Implementation, however, remained slow and ad hoc. 

For more information about this topic please visit ‘Are humanitarian actors doing enough to reduce and address sexual exploitation and abuse?’ from the SOHS report.   

Attention and resourcing 
  • The 2018 exposure of sexual abuse in Oxfam’s 2010 Haiti response was followed two years later by reports of widespread sexual abuse by WHO and other agency staff in the 10th DRC Ebola response.  
  • Simultaneously, the #AidToo movement brought attention to long-running sexual harassment within the humanitarian sector, prompting new high-level awareness of the gaps in PSEA implementation. A wave of resourcing, policy and operational changes followed. 
  • Within the UN, steps were taken to implement the 2017 strategy on PSEA. This included appointing a Victims’ Rights Advocate and creating a new Office of the Victims’ Rights Advocate (OVRA).  
  • DAC established a reference group on PSEA which led to the adoption of a 2019 DAC Recommendation on Ending Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment. Following the Oxfam scandal, the UK government hosted a Safeguarding Summit in 2018, where donors and agencies outlined new commitments and shaped reforms.  
  • There were several agency and inter-agency initiatives, notably new IASC implementation plans, a global review of progress on PSEAH in the 2018–2021 period, and a number of reviews conducted by Humanitarian Country Teams. 
  • The Misconduct Disclosure Scheme was used in over 31,000 recruitments in 2021 and the information it provided prevented 142 potential hires. In partnership with UK FCDO, Interpol conceptualised a new system (‘Soteria’) to strengthen collaboration between aid agencies and law enforcement agencies to prevent the hiring of accused or convicted sex offenders.  
  • Enabled by donors allowing costs for PSEAH implementation to be included in funding agreements, INGOs and UN agencies increased the number of PSEAH focal points and coordinators and shifted resources to improve safeguarding mechanisms.  
Accountability and redress 
  • It will take time to see the practical effects of improved resources and practices on PSEAH, and recent evidence remains largely negative. 60% of respondents to our aid practitioner survey rated PSEAH implementation as only ‘Fair’ or ‘Poor’.  
  • In some contexts, PSEAH reporting mechanisms are not designed with an understanding of how communities would prefer to report, leading to low levels of trust and use. Hotlines and complaints boxes were still used widely, despite evidence that these are not appropriate, given accessibility issues and survivor preferences for face-to-face reporting. 
  • Follow-up on complaints is a pervasive challenge, both in terms of providing adequate support and compensation to survivors and in holding perpetrators to account through legal processes. 
  • In many countries, survivor assistance is inadequate and hampered by a lack of dedicated resources or inter-agency mechanisms that can facilitate referrals to PSEAH services. An IASC global review found that only a quarter of crisis-affected people would be able to access referrals to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) services. 
  • Financial compensation for survivors is rare, and there is widespread confusion among humanitarian staff on available forms of support or compensation.  



About ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System report 

Humanitarian action can be a lifeline to people experiencing the worst that conflict and disaster can inflict. For over a decade, ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System report (SOHS) has provided a unique, evidence‑based understanding of the system and how well it works for affected people. Based on a huge body of evidence including exclusive research with crisis-affected people and practitioners, SOHS addresses key questions about performance and effectiveness in areas such as hunger and mortality reduction, as well as giving a comprehensive picture of funding, resource flows, staffing and organisations. Consultations with people affected by crises were central to the research from the outset, and shaped the focus of the report. This edition of the SOHS looks at the period from January 2018 to December 2021 - a period that encompassed the global COVID-19 pandemic as well as multiple armed conflicts - and draws comparisons with previous editions to take the long view on trends, accomplishments and challenges in the humanitarian system.