Safe programming in humanitarian responses

Mélida Guevara, from Oxfam in El Salvador

Mélida Guevara, from Oxfam in El Salvador, speaks with Marta Eugenia Sánchez at the Las Gardenias Women Association, who does work on defending the rights of women and girls and prevention of gender violence at the Getsemaní Community in Ahuachapán. Photo: Oscar Leiva/Oxfam

Since 2018, Oxfam has renewed its commitment to safeguarding, including strengthening policies, developing procedures, and focusing on ensuring that our programs and our staff do not cause harm to the individuals and communities we work with, including exploitation and abuse.

This has included training staff to build expertise across multiple roles in Safe Programming: Identifying potentially unsafe situations, and making mitigation plans that reduce risk for the people Oxfam serves. Oxfam’s Global Humanitarian Team set a goal to ensure all staff have participated in Safe Programming training in 2020.

Here are two examples of Safe Programming training and how Oxfam country teams are implementing what they learned in their humanitarian programs.


In Senegal, Oxfam held a Safe Programming workshop in January 2020 for Oxfam staff and local representatives delivering humanitarian assistance to communities affected by widespread drought in the country in 2019. This response was delivered jointly by the Government of Senegal and a consortium led by the START Network, with non-governmental organizations including Action contre la Faim, Save the Children, World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, Plan International, and Oxfam. Oxfam’s contribution to the project is providing cash assistance and supplementary food aid to families with young children in the Louga region of Senegal, prioritizing female-headed households facing a high risk of food insecurity in the most vulnerable communities.

Oxfam staff met with local promoters tasked with surveying and selecting eligible families, and delivered training on how to ensure families receiving assistance understand they are not compelled to do anything in exchange for the cash and food assistance, and know how to register a complaint if anyone violates this rule.

Oxfam specifically trained these local promoters (known as relais) because “they come from the communities we targeted, live among the people, speak the same languages, and come from the same reality,” says Mbaye Kane Dieng, Oxfam’s food security officer in Senegal. “It was also an opportunity for us to hire local people, provide capacity building and essential on-the-job training.”

In an effort to reduce risk in the communities receiving assistance, working with local representatives to identify those most at need and make certain they understand their rights is a crucial means to build trust. And because Oxfam was asking people very sensitive questions about their ability to feed their families, we wanted community members to feel safe discussing such issues.

One crucial message delivered by relais to community members needed to be extremely clear: No member of the community should have to give or exchange anything (including sex) in order to be put on the list of people to receive assistance.  Oxfam and the START Network also made certain that they continued to communicate this point during the implementation of the project, and that “the post-distribution monitoring survey will include follow up questions on these issues of sexual abuse and exploitation,” says Khar Ndieye, Oxfam’s program manager.

Training in Safe Programming helps local partners like the relais working in the START Network as well as Oxfam staff to be on the same page in terms of zero tolerance of any person exchanging money, goods, or services for sex. Oxfam and START network staff are also on the same page about how to respond in case someone comes forward with a complaint.

“We want our staff to report any complaints directly to specialized safeguarding staff,” says Senior Safeguarding Advisor Jennifer Emond, who delivered the Safe Programming training to Oxfam and partner staff, and the relais in early 2020. Timely reports, she says, are crucial “so that we can get the survivor assistance, and investigate the allegation in a safe, survivor-centered way.”

El Salvador

For its training In El Salvador, Oxfam America secured support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to fund a dedicated project that focuses on improving accountability to communities through safe programming. Oxfam is working with three local organizations and the project was launched with a safe programming training for staff. The objective of the grant and training is to raise awareness of safe programming principles and use technology to track information Oxfam and partners can use to make humanitarian programs more inclusive, reduce risk to women and marginalized people, and make humanitarian work safer and more accountable.

Safe Programming training “allows us greater community participation and empowerment, greater transparency and trust of the communities, partners, and donors with whom we work,” say Mercedes Garcia, Oxfam’s humanitarian program manager in El Salvador. She says the objective is to “reduce the possibility of causing unintentional damage to the most vulnerable people.”

Garcia says that the current COVID-19 pandemic is raising the stakes on their humanitarian program in El Salvador: “People will have multiple needs, which raises risks that their rights could be violated through abuses of power, sexual abuse in exchange for help from various actors…these abuses can be diminished or eliminated if we empower people, if they can participate in the construction of a feedback system.”

One of Oxfam’s partners involved is the Justice and Gender Foundation, which “specializes in gender equality and violence against women, and plays an essential role in providing Oxfam with gender advice, training, and support and protection in emergencies,” says Melida Guevara, Oxfam’s gender justice program manager. With their help, the Safe Programming initiative is working to protect the rights of women who suffer any sexual abuse or exploitation as, according to Guevara, they have “the right to be heard and treated with dignity and respect, and not to be blamed or re-victimized.”

The Justice and Gender Foundation’s in-depth knowledge of the laws that apply to situations of violence and exploitation of women is helping Oxfam ensure that it can “ensure compliance with care protocols in cases of sexual violence, ensure that survivors receive help, and are guaranteed timely and adequate protection, that their emotional state is taken into account and that they have the necessary information about their rights,” Guevara says.