The Your Word Counts Programme

The Your Word Counts Programme

Understanding the barriers and preferences related to reporting misconduct in humanitarian contexts in Kachin, Myanmar


United Kingdom


Collecting, managing and responding to feedback from community members living in humanitarian spaces has been a focus for Oxfam in recent years, and yet there remains a gap in understanding how reporting issues such as sexual exploitation, abuse, and fraud take place. For this reason, Oxfam GB started the ‘Your Word Counts’ programme, an effort dedicated to understanding the barriers and preferences related to reporting misconduct involving programme staff members and community leadership in Humanitarian settings. The programme’s goal is to deliver feedback options for misconduct reporting that are community-led and context specific, and for Oxfam GB to strengthen its accountability within community-based programming across the world.

Journey map graphic
Journey Map describes how stipend-related fraud can happen among field staff who are responsible for paying community members.

Sonder supported Oxfam in learning and using human-centred design principles to engage with a highly complex issue

Oxfam engaged Sonder to shape the research methodology, execute research activities, and lead the data analysis process for the Programme’s first country of focus, Myanmar. A parallel aim of the engagement was for Sonder to build Oxfam's internal understanding and use of design-thinking, by embedding HCD principles in the process so Oxfam could replicate it independently in both Iraq and the DRC.

The Programme did not utilise a complete HCD process, but incorporated certain principles in the research, such as approaching conversations with participants in an exploratory manner to experience the world from their perspective, while focusing on capturing the emotions and motivators that influence their decision-making. With this in mind, the team engaged in semi-structured interviews and group discussions, prompting individuals to think about how they would respond in specific instances of misconduct, or how they know others have responded.

The context of Kachin, the northernmost state in Myanmar, made the research highly complex.

In 2018 Kachin is characterised by a significant degree of instability related to decades of armed conflict and violence. At the time of the research, there were approximately 97,600 displaced people living within 136 camps and camp-like settings across the state. The project team was specifically interested in hearing from individuals who reside in these camps, including those who hold management and volunteer positions within them. Due to security and sensitivity concerns, however, we were unable to secure the travel clearance required to enter the Government Controlled Areas (GCAs) and Non-Government Controlled Areas (NGCAs) where the majority of the camps are located. For this reason, individuals were transported to the Oxfam Myitkyina office and conversations were held in fully private spaces. For similar reasons it proved difficult to reach the ‘right’ people and interviews were done with an overrepresentation of community leaders. Furthermore while efforts were made to have a female translator, a lack of local availability prevented the research team from securing this.

A persons hands resting on a table close to pieces of paper with terms such as 'Sexual misconduct' and 'Trafficking' written on them
Participants were not asked directly to describe in detail personal experiences with misconduct but instead were prompted to think about how they would respond in specific instances, or how they know others have responded. Prompt cards which listed types of misconduct were used as tools to stimulate conversations around safeguarding.

A framework to deconstruct the dynamic nature of decision-making

Utilising principles of HCD, the research team leveraged the power of human connection and conversation to uncover a number of critical factors that influence misconduct reporting among community members and programme staff within camp settings in Kachin, Myanmar. Decision-making behaviour in any environment is dynamic, and can never be fully distilled down to its individual components. Similarly, behaviour relating to safeguarding and misconduct reporting in the Kachin social environment cannot be deconstructed in its entirety. For that reason, a framework (below) was created as a guide to orient thinking, with the understanding that the various influencing factors overlap and can strengthen or diminish the weight of each other depending on individual experience.

Screenshot of a table with 3 columns entitled Personal factors, Interactional factors, and Structural factors
After analysing the data from individual and group conversations, and distilling larger themes into patterns, the framework above was created as a means of summarising what emerged during the research.

Notion of ‘ah nah deh’ to adopt proactive rather than reactive reporting channels

From working with the Myanmar Oxfam team on data synthesis, the influencing factors gratitude and shame emerged, best captured as ‘ah nah deh’. This “famously untranslatable Burmese concept involving hesitance to impose on others (especially those of higher status), or mortification that one has done so”revealed the need for Oxfam to explore channels that proactively connect with community members rather than offering reactive ones (that place additional burden on community members to speak up).

In fact it is rare for survivors of safeguarding issues to report incidents themselves, and it is typically the role of people close to them to do so on their behalf. Traditional community resolution practices often do not prioritise the preferences of the survivor directly, and instead are focused on structured problem-solving that is more collective and community-driven. Given what is known about community resolution practices in Kachin, there is a significant need to consider what it means to be survivor-centred in this context.

Fears around the loss of privileges and access to services prevent community members from confiding in leaders with particular decision-making power and influence. Facilitating access to allies who do not have the potential for punitive influence could decrease levels of fear and avoidance. Community members often prefer to speak with local representatives and religious leaders about personal challenges because they are distinctly separate and removed from camp management. More research is required, however, to understand the current capacity these figures have for supporting community members when it comes to safeguarding and misconduct.

Journey map graphic
Journey Map highlighting the potential challenges of speaking up in a politically charged environment.

Need to prioritise conversations around what it means to be accountable

Designing and building long-term programming in a constantly changing and politically charged environment makes engagement and consistent collaboration with local actors highly complex. This research has been successful in highlighting the need to prioritise conversations around what it means for Oxfam to be accountable in a set-up where programmes are run exclusively by local and national partners. Findings from the research in suggest that there is a significant gap when it comes to information reaching actors at the HQ/international level. If Oxfam is not receiving information about what transpires at the community level in Kachin, the organisation is less equipped to effectively respond to it. This gap in understanding is particularly relevant when considering Oxfam’s global accountability and desire to design mechanisms for prevention ad support that are more contextually appropriate.

Sonder were flexible, responsive and collaborative with working on our Misconduct Research. On a complex, multi-thematic piece of research they were able to make sense of the complexities and frame and structure the research clearly, setting the platform for us to continue with the research in other countries. The Journey Maps produced as part of the research have been an invaluable way of bringing the research findings to life. The research itself is challenging the way both Oxfam, and others in the sector, are managing misconduct reporting and is leading to pilot activities to test new and improved approaches.

Emily Tomkys Valteri, Accountability Global Advisor, Oxfam GB



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