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Risk specialist Nemer Haddad about NGO/aid worker field security

July 09, 2013

NGOs have made significant advances in efforts to prevent and respond to aid worker security incidents over the last few years. Having dedicated security staff, increased emphasis on training and the drafting of policies and guidelines are all important parts of this work. The review of 20 NGOs’ security documents shows a focus on key security messages mainly in guidance on organisational security policies and plans, while other areas, particularly resources for security and issues related to human resources, are less frequently cited. More detailed guidance on security-related communication between organisations could enhance effective information-sharing in the field and facilitate trend analysis across organisations. While we now have an idea of which security messages are most and least likely to be communicated to NGO staff, we do not know which communication methods are most effective, or the most common hindrances staff face in implementing policies. We could learn more through a systematic field-based review of security practices in relation to policies. As the security environment continues to change, NGOs will need to reassess the messages conveyed to staff and what impact these messages have in preventing and responding to security incidents.

The need for operational security management is critical for NGOs operating in all environments, not only those affected by active conflict. Civilian deaths, sometimes including NGO staff, account for 90% of casualties in conflict zones today. But traditional security methods alone (e.g. armed transport, fortified buildings) are not sufficient to meet and mitigate threats in the field. To mitigate this risk, operational security managers employ a three-pronged strategy: Acceptance, Protection and Deterrence.

Most NGO security guidance highlights that not all organisations, nor all staff within the same organisation, have the same level of vulnerability in a given security environment. Based in part on different assessments of vulnerability, NGOs in the same situation sometimes make different security decisions based on their own interpretation of risk. This is to be expected, but it also highlights the need for good communication across organisations in the field since the decisions of one can affect the security of others. The review also found variation in the frameworks and terminologies that NGOs use for determining an unacceptable security risk, and when an organisation might suspend project activities or withdraw staff. Many but not all organisations have adopted a framework that uses either a risk matrix (plotting the probability of a security event against the impact of such an event if it occurs) or a variety of indicators to determine security levels, using categories such as low, moderate, high and severe. There is considerable variation in indicators used to define those categories and differences in security level terminology.

In recent years, staff security management within humanitarian organisations has developed considerably. Only ten years ago, many NGOs did not have full-time security officers, written security policies and guidelines or training programmes focused on the prevention and management of staff security incidents. Today the majority do. As the field expands, it is appropriate to look at how humanitarian organisations communicate to field staff about security issues. What key messages do staff receive about security management? What issues are less commonly addressed? How do organisations communicate these messages? To what extent are security messages and advice similar or different across organisations? What is the potential impact of these differences at field level?

This publication can be ordered from our distributor, NBN International. Aid work has always been a hazardous profession. But many dangers facing aid workers in such unpredictable environments are avoidable or, at least, can be substantially reduced. Safety First outlines the basic principles of security management and offers practical guidance on a range of safety and security issues: personal security awareness and staying healthy in the field working in conflict environments and dealing with security threats travel and site safety and security field communications natural hazards and disasters relocating and evacuating staff incident monitoring and information management. For more interesting information, please press here. If you need help to manage security among aid workers, contact risk specilist Nemer Haddad at Marlon International.