How feminist leadership can strengthen global development’s approach to safeguarding

Leila Billing
6 min readOct 12, 2020


I recently spent time listening to witnesses give evidence to the UK Parliament’s International Development Committee on the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector. The committee has painstakingly filtered through a labyrinth of different compliance procedures, frameworks, protocols and mechanisms put in place by the aid sector over the past two years. They have listened to those who believe the sector needs to do ‘more of the same but better’; as well as others who feel that development agencies’ responses have been akin to trying to carry water with a sieve. But with the latest scandal to hit the headlines, in which more than 50 women in the DRC accused Ebola aid workers of abuse, it’s hard not to feel that so much of the safeguarding architecture put in place has been — to paraphrase Angela Davis — ‘the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings no change’.

What might be going wrong with the sector’s predominant approach to safeguarding? And given that we arguably saw multiple failures of leadership during the 2018 safeguarding crisis, what might the application of feminist leadership principles to this area of work offer us?

What’s going wrong?

While there are some differences in the way development agencies have responded since the 2018 safeguarding crisis, the overwhelming majority of the sector is adopting a technocratic approach to what is essentially a political problem. Safeguarding officers are immersed in compliance frameworks, risk assessment templates, checklists and toolkits for creating ‘safer’ organisational cultures. All too often, these technical approaches help to create an illusion that change has occurred. I have a friend who works in safeguarding — her organisation has received plaudits for the investment it puts into its safeguarding work; as well as its robust tools and protocols. But her workplace also has a bullying problem, where those lower down the pecking order fear giving honest feedback to leaders. All those tools are not quite doing the job.

Meanwhile, being entombed within a complex safeguarding architecture makes it nigh-impossible to have perspective to meaningfully think about what might be required to transform the historical, social, economic and political root causes of the types of violence and abuse that show up within our work. Indeed, without the transformative goal of trying to destabilise the unequal power relations that create a fertile ground for violence and abuse to take root, the sector’s predominant approach is all too often focused on managing individual cases of violence.

Furthermore, these frameworks, which veer towards the top-down, one-size-fits-all variety, can end up reproducing inequitable power lines rather than disrupting them. For example, there is still a lack of consultation with local actors and valuing of local expertise when it comes to safeguarding — suggesting that these protocols and procedures cater more to the needs of the northern donors who demand them than to impacted communities. Some agencies are reporting challenges with ensuring ‘beneficiaries’ use their reporting mechanisms — no wonder, given that the said ‘beneficiaries’ often have little meaningful role in shaping what these should look like or may not even know that they exist. Generic reporting mechanisms and frameworks often do not ‘fit’ the complex realities of survivors’ lives. Time and again, the highly contextual and embedded knowledge of local actors and organisations is not adequately solicited or valued, resulting in a lack of ownership of safeguarding mechanisms at local levels, as well as a gap in understanding by northern agencies of the social contexts in which violence takes place.

What might feminist leadership offer us?

Feminist leadership rejects scarcity consciousness — or the idea that power is a finite resource — and aims to make the practice of power more democratic, accountable and transparent. In particular, feminist leaders try to surface where ‘hidden power’ lies in our organisations and beyond. By hidden power, I’m referring to the processes by which powerful actors maintain their dominance over subordinate groups through tactics like silencing, exclusion and delegitimising. It is in these sites of hidden power where abuse and exploitation can thrive. A feminist approach tells us that not everyone will experience hidden power in the same way — gender, age, class, ethnicity and others forms of social division mediate the ways we are impacted, and this intersectional analysis can help to ensure no-one falls through the cracks. Feminist leaders try to redistribute power, creating organisational cultures where everyone feels empowered; where no conversation is deemed to be ‘too difficult’; and where values mean more than the words written on the page of an organisational website that no-one ever visits. It also allows for a focus on collective action that perhaps current safeguarding approaches do not. This involves creating spaces where employees, local partners and those involved in aid programmes can enhance their collective voice and influence and have psychological safety to challenge harmful dynamics where and when they occur. (It is still sadly the case that collective approaches to challenging organisational status quos are viewed as threatening in many workplaces.)

While acknowledging that abuse is created in relationships of unequal power, a feminist approach widens the lens beyond the interpersonal level and recognises that these relationships are also located in interlocking systems of power and oppression including colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy and ableism to name but a few. Feminism rejects the individualised approach that implies abuse arises as a result of a ‘few bad apples’ working in the sector. While predominant safeguarding approaches focus on individual incidents of abuse, or on discrete projects and programmes, a feminist approach to safeguarding demands that we take a systemic lens and acknowledge that the transformation of wider power imbalances and systems of oppression is our ultimate goal. Yet so many leaders in global development remain highly intolerant to transformation — how many times have you been told to make ‘tiny tweaks’ to improve a project, or to do ‘more of the same, just better/more efficiently’?

This commitment to transformation requires us to ‘see’ and work differently with impacted communities, local actors and survivors. It recognises that the production of knowledge is a project of power, and that safeguarding approaches — if they are to foreground the needs and rights of survivors — must be developed in more collaborative ways that disrupt the hierarchical binaries of northern/‘expert’ and local/community knowledge.

I can’t write about feminist leadership or safeguarding and not mention accountability. In safeguarding approaches, accountability is often framed as a reactive, one-off event; something that happens — or does not! — when an incident has occurred. Feminist leadership, meanwhile, requests that we view accountability as a proactive process; something we must start to embed into our daily practice and interactions. The academic Sherene Razack suggests that accountability ‘begins with a recognition that we are each implicated in systems of oppression that profoundly structure our understandings of one another... we come to know and perform ourselves in ways that reproduce social hierarchies’. It demands that we start to critically interrogate the interconnectedness of our lives with those of impacted communities; and explore how we at times have been complicit in reproducing systems of oppression.

An attachment to binary thinking within much safeguarding discourse can make this type of personal accountability work very difficult — one is either a survivor or a perpetrator; innocent or guilty, which prevents us from recognising our own, blurry and indistinct roles in perpetuating unequal systems. How can our complicity show up? It happens when we impose our own safeguarding frameworks on local partners with minimal discussions about their relevance to local contexts; when we allow the creation of systems and structures that limit survivor agency and choice because our donors tell us this is the most ‘robust’ response; and when we define and rank safeguarding risks in terms of the potential damage to our own organisations over the impact on affected communities and survivors themselves. Feminist leadership encourages us to regularly ask ourselves the tough questions — like, ‘how might we be perpetuating what we are trying to end?’ — and to collectively hold each other to account.

Make no mistake — this is demanding work. Feminist leadership encourages us to walk a fine line between promoting transformation at both the personal and systemic level and it’s not easy to get the balance right. Furthermore, we are all embedded in systems that make it difficult for us to lead in a spirit of transformation. But when it comes to creating safety, dignity, respect and rights for everyone — will anything less really work?

Leila Billing is a gender and development consultant who also provides feminist leadership training. Follow her @leilabilling