What were the World Bank's key messages around child SEA/H in the 2022 Annual Meetings, and what is still missing?

Despite progress addressing child sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment (SEA/H) in World Bank projects, much more remains to be done. We offer a summary of key messages from a recent panel discussion around these issues and recommendations moving forward.

Every year, civil society organizations (CSOs) gather around the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank Group Annual Meetings at the Civil Society Policy Forum (CSPF) to share research and experiences that they believe will be valuable for these institutions to consider when setting their development priorities. At the recent 2022 annual meetings, BIC, in partnership with CPC Learning Network and TPO Alliance, co-sponsored a session on Protecting children in Multilateral Development Bank projects: progress, challenges, and opportunities which included both the United States Executive Director and the World Bank’s Global Director for the World Bank's Environmental and Social Framework.

Ariana Kugler, the United States Executive Director to the Bank, opened the session by commending the progress made by the Bank in developing policies and guidance on preventing Sexual Exploitation Abuse and Harrassment (SEA/H) and called on the Panelists to speak to challenges in implementing measures that prevent and respond to SEA/H. Key messages from the Panelists included:

  • Having CSO working as watchdogs of the Bank works. The Bank recognized that the child SEA/H cases in Uganda raised by BIC and Joy for Children, combined with advocacy from these organizations were crucial factors in leading the Bank to consider and understand the extent to which their projects can lead to child SEA/H and exacerbate gender-based violence (GBV). 
  • Much progress has been made on paper. Following the Uganda case, the World Bank launched a Global Gender-Based Violence Task Force to strengthen the institution’s efforts to prevent and respond to risks of GVB and SEA/H in Bank-projects and developed an action plan following the Task Force’s recommendations. More recently, the World Bank’s revised Good Practice Note on Addressing SEA/H in Investment Project Financing involving Major Civil Works better incorporates the specific risks to children. Project documents now examine risks of SEA/H and include prevention and mitigation measures.
  • More needs to be done on the implementation side. The Bank, CSOs, and academia agree that having good policies, procedures, and well-designed strategies in project documents to prevent and respond to child SEA/H is a sign of progress but is not enough. To be effective, all of these need to be reflected in practice and Bank staff must both communicate to implementing agencies the importance of preventing and responding to SEA/H and  systematically monitor projects to determine whether measures contained in project documents are being implemented on the ground.
  • There should be openness to recognizing failure. Senior staff should build a culture where admitting failure is possible, and it starts by sharing their own failures to allow for junior staff to feel comfortable sharing their own failures in project implementation. Cases of SEA/H should not be denied or covered up but rather should be transformed into an opportunity to support victims and remedy gaps in the project.
  • A survivor-centered approach must be backed up by strengthening service providers' capacities. Improving and building local service providers' capacity to address child SEA/H requires investing time as well as financial and human resources that need to be budgeted for at the time of project design.

To move from policy to practice, going forward the Bank should prioritize the following:

  • Take child SEA/H seriously inside the Bank, at all staff levels. As of October 2022, the GBV team is made up of only ten professionals that have to cover all of the Bank's portfolio. More qualified and trained Bank staff focusing on preventing and responding to SEA/H are needed. Additionally, project and country level staff need to universally recognize that preventing SEA/H is a core part of their work as well as central to fulfilling the Bank’s twin goals. Finally, when cases arise, Bank staff need to respond sensitively to avoid the revictimization of survivors or put undue pressure  on key stakeholders.
  • Be more accessible to communities and CSOs at the country level. Bank staff should be responsive and regularly engage with local communities and CSOs, particularly at the country and project level. Experience from a Nepal project that TPO Alliance and BIC monitor shows that if the Bank listens to the community and acts upon information shared, harm can be addressed and prevented. 
  • Translate policy into practice, particularly in projects with a high risk of child SEA/H. The Bank needs to focus on implementing child SEA/H prevention and response strategies at project level and assessing child-specific needs. This includes, among others: 1) providing comprehensive training around child SEA/H on an ongoing basis to in-country Bank staff, the Borrower and implementing agency, contractors, sub-contractors, and workers in the field; 2) making acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and sanctions clear and actionable in the Codes of Conduct; 3) setting up child-friendly grievance redress mechanisms to allow for children to report SEA/H; 4) developing a community outreach strategy to understand entry points better, and sensitize the community around child SEA/H prevention and response; 5) assessing children’s needs by directly consulting directly with them; and 6) mapping service providers, assessing their capacities, and allocating funds as needed to strengthen them.