Safeguarding is an active process, that requires every researcher’s attention

By Mary Ryan, International Development Research Manager in Research Services

A photo of two children, partially in view, but clearly waving at the camera
Safeguarding can include something as simple as taking care not to capture children in photos of field work, even when they are trying their hardest to get in the frame…

‘Safeguarding’, as in, the concept of taking steps to protect people from harm, is one of those things that feels like it emerged from the ether and was suddenly visible everywhere. In the wake of horrific abuses of power by aid workers and those working with vulnerable individuals, the issue of safeguarding was rightfully thrust into the forefront, as funders and institutions grappled with the scale of their obligations to protect people from harm. As is usually the case when a gap is recognized, a veritable avalanche of new policies, procedures and rules were developed to help ensure organizations could address the emerging challenges. 

For people working in areas with safeguarding considerations, this avalanche, however good-intentioned, can be overwhelming. Even within a single institution, there is unlikely to be a single policy that someone can reference if they wish to clarify their roles and responsibilities to protect themselves and others. The University of Glasgow has both a general Safeguarding Policy and a more targeted Preventing Harm (Safeguarding) Researchers in Research and Innovation Activities: Responsibilities of Key Stakeholders policy. 

These documents are complex and are meant to be read in conjunction with nine other relevant policies. When you consider that an international research consortium can include different institutions, countries and cultures, knowing how to navigate safeguarding issues across the landscape is complicated, indeed. And all too often, official policies and processes rarely reflect the messy and challenging realities of safeguarding in practice.

All of this begs the question: When facing such a labyrinth of institutional policies and processes colliding with messy reality, what’s a well-intentioned researcher to do? 

The biggest piece of advice I can offer is to remember that the core of safeguarding is to protect people from harm, whatever form that harm might take. If you act in a way that promotes this core value, you are on the right track. 

From there, I suggest that you take things one step at a time and know where to go for help. 

It’s important to remember that safeguarding includes protecting yourself. A common misconception is that safeguarding is only for children or vulnerable people, or for specific activities. Not so, it’s for all of us, every day. It can be empowering to know what behaviours every one of us have a right to expect from others, each day and every day at work and study, and the options that that are available to you via the University of Glasgow should those expectations be breached:

Of course, the reality of being the victim of bullying, harassment or any other safeguarding violation and grappling with reporting it often bears little resemblance to the neat guidance laid out in official policies. Seeking support from colleagues around you and specialists outside your management structure such as the First Responders for sexual violence and harassment or the Respect Advisers Network can help you to navigate concerns you may have and effectively engage with the complaints process. These teams have extensive experience in providing support. They appreciate that people may have concerns about the impacts on their career as a result of submitting a complaint and are there to provide pragmatic support and guidance. Friends and family from completely outside your professional world will also be important avenues of support in a distressing time. How you handle being subjected to a safeguarding violation is a personal decision and however you choose to handle it is okay, but always remember there are support structures in place for you at the University.

Safeguarding is a responsibility as well as a right and is also about how you protect others. When you have good intentions and treat people around you with respect as a matter of course, formal safeguarding can seem like stating the obvious, or someone else’s issue. But whether you are a student, a researcher, managing a large research project, a member of a research support team or supporting research and teaching in any way, safeguarding is very much your issue – and it’s worth building into your work life. This is particularly the case for anyone working in partnership with external parties and in international contexts who will need to ensure they abide by more than one set of institutional policies. 

Your safeguarding responsibilities extend to anyone you engage with as part of your role with the University of Glasgow

This includes peers, colleagues, students, research participants, anyone you engage with as part of a research study, anyone who enrols on an event, conference or activity you run, your collaborators and anyone your collaborators engage with as part of a project led by the University of Glasgow. That’s kind of a lot. But understanding the guidance, knowing who to ask for help and making time as part of project planning work to have open conversations will ensure you are prepared as possible for safeguarding issues. This is when taking some time to review the University’s specific safeguarding policies can be most helpful:

If you are part of a project team, you can develop a project approach to safeguarding. Different institutions will have different policies and different cultures will have different expectations. You should take action to initiate open and honest conversations with your partners at the project development stage about competing or conflicting expectations and how you will approach them in a way that meet everyone’s institutional requirements. Your project approach should be documented, shared with everyone who is recruited to join the project and set out clear expectations for all members of the team. You should also think through what the consequences will be for violation of the agreed approach. UKCDR has developed very helpful guidance for developing project safeguarding policies that might be useful as you work through developing a project safeguarding policy.

If you are working on your own, which can often be the case for Postgraduate Researchers and Research Associates/Fellows, you should consider your own approach to safeguarding. People with previous experience of working in your chosen geographical area of focus or who conduct similar types of research as you are valuable resources to help you understand what kinds of issues you might encounter. For Low- and Middle-Income Country contexts, the Glasgow Centre for International Development can connect you to people working in your country of focus. College International Deans and the Deans for Global Engagement will also have information the University’s activity in international contexts. Reaching out to people in your School or Institute will help you identify who is using similar research techniques. All of these options can help you be prepared for the challenges you may encounter when working abroad and locally appropriate ways to resolve them.

Whether working on your own or as part of a team, at home or away, reviewing the University’s guidance on what to do if someone reports a safeguarding issue to you, can help you be prepared, and to identify what similar processes you might need for work in international contexts:

At the end of the day, taking the time to think (and talk) through the messy reality of safeguarding and everyone’s responsibilities (including your own) is the best advice I can give for a pragmatic approach. Hopefully you will never be faced with a safeguarding issue but thinking through the steps and knowing where to go for help will ensure you are as prepared as possibly for any eventuality.

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