New review – The UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative

9 Jan 2020

  • Flagship Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative – the focus of a 2014 Global Summit led by William Hague and Angelina Jolie – given amber-red rating by aid watchdog.
  • Despite initial strong leadership, ICAI found that following the departure of Lord Hague as Foreign Secretary, senior ministerial interest waned, and funding and staff resources fell.
  • “Valuable” initiative made some important achievements – including creating an international protocol used to secure convictions – but also had no overall strategy, did not focus on learning, and failed to include survivors systematically.

A flagship government programme to tackle sexual violence in conflict zones risked letting survivors down due to a lack of senior leadership, poor strategy, and cuts in funding, a new report from ICAI has found.

The Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI), launched in 2012, was the focus of worldwide attention in 2014 when then-Foreign Secretary Lord Hague and UN special envoy Angelina Jolie hosted a high-profile global summit on the issue, attended by 1,700 delegates including politicians, celebrities, survivors and their supporters.

But ICAI found that although the UK had delivered some important work since then – leading diplomatic efforts in an area often neglected by the global community, and developing an international protocol that was instrumental in securing convictions – waning ministerial interest and cuts to both funding and staff meant that the initiative fell “far short” of its ambitions.

As a result, ICAI awarded an overall score of amber-red, and made four recommendations for how the “valuable and worthwhile” initiative can improve.

ICAI chief commissioner Tamsyn Barton said: “The 2014 summit made very clear the devastating impact of sexual violence in conflict, and the UK deserves credit for leading the way globally in tackling this vital but often neglected issue.

“But although we found some promising examples of important achievements – particularly the creation of a widely-praised international protocol that led to a number of convictions – we are concerned that the initiative has not fully delivered on its ambitions, and is at risk of letting survivors down.

“We want to see government strengthen the way the initiative is managed, ensure that survivors’ voices are heard, and embed learning – which is crucial to the quality and impact of aid – into all of its activities. This will help ensure that the pledges made in 2014 are turned into practical action that makes a real difference.”

The cross-departmental initiative is led by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) with contributions from the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Ministry of Defence (MOD). It is currently overseen by the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for PSVI. Since 2014, around £34million has been spent by the PSVI team in London on a range of activities in 24 countries.

The review found that the initiative benefited initially from strong leadership. However, after the departure of Lord Hague, responsibility moved from the Foreign Secretary to the more junior Special Representative, and the London team’s staffing and funding were cut – from a peak of £15million and 34 staff in 2014, to £2million in the last financial year and four staff. There was no strategic plan from the start, with nothing done to translate the summit pledges into practical action and no way of reviewing progress. Instead, the work was directed by short ‘core scripts’ and guidance documents.

The review described the development of the International Protocol on Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict – which set international standards for helping survivors overcome barriers to justice – as the main achievement of the initiative. It is used around the world and helped secure convictions in several countries. A number of innovative projects – ranging from a 24/7 hotline in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to an awareness-raising campaign with Syrian radio stations – were also highlighted, with ICAI praising civil society organisations for meeting targets and “impressively” navigating tight timelines and small budgets.

But the FCO’s approach of working in one-year funding cycles meant that focus was on short-term fixes rather than the long-term programming that survivors want. In addition, the initiative lacked “robust mechanisms” for meaningfully including survivors in the choice and design of projects, despite having a goal to do so – increasing the risk of inadvertently causing survivors harm.

Reviewers also found that the initiative had very little evidence of the results of its work, and lacked focus on learning. There was also no requirement to provide appropriate evidence in funding applications or business cases.

ICAI gave the initiative amber-red scores for relevance and effectiveness, and a red score for learning. It recommended measures to strengthen oversight, monitoring and evaluation; ensure that activities are founded on survivor-led design; and build systematic learning processes into its programming.

ICAI is responsible for scrutinising UK aid and ensuring it is spent effectively while delivering value for money for taxpayers. Research included interviews with survivors and their supporters, remote and field-based case studies, and document reviews.

Find out more here.