ISSUE 33 April 2006

Humanitarian Exchange Magazine

The SCHR Peer Review process: Oxfam’s experience

by Eva Von Oelreich, Executive Secretary, SCHR, and Yoma Winder, Humanitarian Programme Advisor, Oxfam GB

This article examines the Peer Review process set up by the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR) to look at how its members are seeking to address the problem of sexual abuse and exploitation of beneficiaries by agency staff. Eight of SCHR’s nine members have now gone through the process, and the first round of reviews will be finished in 2006. Agencies are in the process of implementing recommendations from their peers, and are starting to report back on the first year’s progress.

Why Peer Review?

Various methods for monitoring and improving quality and standards have been discussed within the SCHR. These include accreditation, joint evaluations and the use of external management consultants. Peer Review was chosen because it was likely to be acceptable and manageable by all members, and was most likely to bring about change within organisations. The form of Peer Review that was adopted enabled members to be assessed against their own standards, instead of against a set of absolute standards that may not seem relevant or doable to individual agencies. The Peer Review process seeks to test the policies and/or guidelines that an organisation has on a given subject, and how well they are translated into practice on the ground.

In the light of the sex scandal in West Africa in 2002 and steps by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) to prevent such incidents in the future, the subject of sexual exploitation appeared both grave and current, and seemed to be an appropriate choice. The objectives for the first round of the Peer Review were:

  • To examine SCHR members’ capacity and competence in the prevention of sexual abuse and exploitation.
  • To identify best practice, share experience and foster coordination in implementing policies and procedures.
  • To encourage, via an active learning dialogue, accountability and improved individual and collective performance in this area.
  • To highlight key lessons resulting from the Review process, which could be incorporated into future Review cycles, thus ensuring the sustainability of the process as an accountability practice.

Topics for the next Peer Review are now under discussion. Themes include working with partners and accountability to beneficiaries.

Mechanisms for Peer Review

The SCHR process uses the same peer review methodology as the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Reviewers from two agencies (A and B) carry out a first review of a third organisation (C). In subsequent rounds, one of the two reviewing organisations (A or B) becomes the object of a review, thus establishing a rolling process. The reviewers in this subsequent round could be involved in the initial pilot (for example, B and C review A), or there could be a mixed arrangement combining one organisation from the initial review (B or C) with an SCHR member that was not part of the first pilot.

The reviewers, together with the SCHR secretariat and an external consultant, make up the Peer Review Team. The reviewers can be CEOs of member agencies, or assigned staff from headquarters or the field. Their role is to contribute to and learn from the Peer Review process. They are expected to take an active part in all stages of the process – planning, visits to headquarters, analysis and the writing of the report for the Peer Review meeting. This report, based on in-depth questionnaires and interviews, is the main outcome of each Peer Review. It is submitted to the NGO concerned and to all nine CEOs, and the CEO of the agency reviewed presents the report at one of the SCHR CEO meetings for comments, discussion and recommendations. The organisation under review then brings back the recommendations for organisational decision, implementation and future work. After 12 months, the NGO is then required to report to SCHR on the progress made against these decisions. For CEOs and the SCHR secretariat, the process (although not necessarily the workload) of this form of Peer Review is relatively ‘light’ and very inclusive. The CEO must give a clear lead in both the decision-making process that results from the written report, and in the discussions and decisions made at the Peer Review Meeting and in the SCHR follow-up meetings.

For an organisation going through a Peer Review, there are slightly more stages to the process. It starts with a self-assessment (against a given format), which is then submitted to the Review Team and used as a basis for the on-site consultation. Preparation of the organisation for the consultation phase is important, and needs the most input.

The value of Peer Review

The act of going through the Peer Review process allows time, space and legitimacy at all levels of the organisation for discussion of topics that otherwise might not be given sufficient attention. There is great value in discussion, in an open manner, amongst peers facing similar challenges. Being assessed against one’s own standards and choosing which recommendations are appropriate for one’s own organisation should be an empowering experience.

The report Oxfam GB received from the Review Team followed consultation with 40 or so senior managers and field-based staff. It contained recommendations in all spheres of the agency’s work, from policy to interaction with beneficiaries. Oxfam adopted recommendations in several key areas, and work has been ongoing since then to improve both policy and practice.

First, to bring itself into line with most other agencies the minimum age applying to sexual relationships in the staff Code of Conduct was increased from 16 (as in UK domestic law) to 18 (as in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the standard set by the IASC). Second, the agency developed and instituted a child protection policy and guidelines on working with children, and introduced more robust selection and recruitment procedures. Third, in recognition of the fact that very few staff knew what was in the staff Code of Conduct or what it meant for them and their teams, Oxfam prepared written training modules and induction packs and developed a set of tools for ‘managing-in’ the Code. Over 400 people throughout the organisation have been trained in using the Code of Conduct as a management tool.

Oxfam’s programming work to protect women and children from violence has increased substantially since the Peer Review. The agency plays a strong role in West Africa, and has begun to make a real difference with its ‘We Can’ campaign in South Asia. Learning from this work will soon be shared with other regions and countries.

What Next?

There are plenty of other topics that could usefully be examined through Peer Review, and organisations that have been through the process are keen to do more. As Barbara Stocking, Oxfam’s CEO and one of the initiators of the SCHR Peer Review, explains: ‘I think it has improved relations between agencies. But this is weakened by not doing more already, because people change and it is difficult, sometimes, but important, to keep the openness we have managed to achieve. Next time I would like more of a view from the field. Obviously it is difficult to go too far afield too often, but I would like the occasional visit. This is really important when we are trying to see how systematically our policies are being acted upon’.

Eva Von Oelreich is Executive Secretary with the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR). Yoma Winder is Humanitarian Programme Advisor at Oxfam GB.

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