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Published: June 26, 2017

A glimpse into the March 2017 GISF Forum

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This blog was written by Hélène Cardona, Projects and Membership Officer at GISF.


On the 23rd and 24th of March, 76 people working on or interested in NGO security risk management met in Brussels for the GISF Forum. This included 50 GISF members representing 48 member organisations, guests, speakers and the GISF Secretariat. GISF has two forums each year for its members, and this was the biggest GISF has ever organised.

Forums are very much designed with GISF members in mind and provide a space for members to share information on security risk management and learn from each other; as well as encouraging thinking outside the box and identifying the strategic topics required to guide continuous improvement of humanitarian security risk management.

In this blog we are sharing key points from three of the Forum sessions: looking at an organisation’s responsibilities towards staff members, staff and their individual needs, and the much broader topic of international humanitarian law (IHL).


Duty of Care: what next?

Duty of care being the three words on the mind of many NGO security professionals these days, this session provoked much debate. The session discussed the consequences for organisations in terms of practically implementing their duty of care following the Dennis v the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) case that saw the Norwegian Court order NRC to pay Steve Dennis approximately 4.4 million Norwegian Krone for gross negligence.

One of the main areas of discussion was around the importance of linking security risk management with all stages of the employee cycle, from recruitment, through performance and development to transition. Christine Williamson of Duty of Care International presented the various areas of overlap and forum participants shared ideas around what is currently being done and areas that need improving. A particular area of concern was carrying out proper risk assessments for positions, both in terms of the position itself but also the individual who might be recruited.

Following the case, NRC realised that it had to strengthen its duty of care. After going through an internal learning process, the organisation identified a number of lessons they had learned. The NRC shared the following seven points, which the organisation is introducing across its offices and programmes to improve its legal duty of care. NRC also noted that their learning process is still ongoing and these actions are still being implemented across their country programmes.

  1. Identify the foreseeable threats and conduct risk assessments for all areas/countries.

Forum discussion: these assessments need to be specific and up to date.

  1. Establish mitigation and contingency measures for all foreseeable risks.

Forum discussion: consider how mitigating one risk may have an impact on other risks, all should be considered together.

  1. Informed consent: briefing all staff on points 1 and 2 above (threats, mitigation procedures and a contingency plan if things go wrong).

Forum discussion: it is common to include threats in the informed consent process, however, ensuring that the mitigation measures are understood, and recognising the role of the individual in ensuring those mitigation measures are implemented, were key learnings for NRC.

  1. Ensuring the organisation has sufficient insurance and redress. Redress means having appropriate insurance and/or funds available to cover physical and psychological harm for staff affected by an incident. This might need to be up to five to seven years after the event because it can take time for psychological harm to manifest itself.

Forum discussion: the fact that INGOs employ individuals from across the globe and that home countries may have different levels of support available through their social services must be considered when identifying redress measures. The length of time somebody may be impacted by a serious incident must also be taken into account.

  1. Ensuring that employees, especially managers, have the necessary training in security (or security risk management), to make decisions in accordance with their roles and responsibilities.

Forum discussion: training was one area flagged during the court case and it made NRC think about how it could demonstrate that managers had the skills and knowledge (e.g. training) to make appropriate decisions on security.

  1. Control and monitoring measures to make sure the system works.

Forum discussion: having systems in place is one thing, making sure the monitoring of those systems is also in place and being clear where responsibility lies for the monitoring and control is essential.

  1. Access to expertise in security risk management, crisis management and duty of care issues.

Forum discussion: it is necessary to know before an incident happens, what expertise is available and what gaps may need to be addressed.

Although many things are moving in the right direction for improving duty of care, other areas represent a considerable challenge. In particular the protection of national staff. However, resources are being developed by GISF and others to help organisations make sense of the complexities around duty of care.

EISF recently released a new module for the ‘Security to go’ guide: ‘People management’. This module written by Christine Williamson identifies the practices in people management which can have an impact on security risks and should be managed accordingly. It is accessible for free on the GISF website here.


Professional Development

The topic of professional development is frequently raised in discussions amongst GISF members. We often hear that it is difficult to recruit staff with the right skills for an ‘NGO security risk management role’. Sometimes the person with the security experience does not fit into the NGO’s culture. Sometimes the person fitting into the NGO’s culture lacks the necessary security risk management skills. Therefore, NGO security managers and organisations are thinking of new ways to recruit appropriate security professionals.

Some organisations have opted to identify individuals already within their organisation, whether national staff or young international humanitarians who have the necessary motivation to work within security. Who, through coaching and training, can improve their skills and knowledge to take on more senior security roles. One organisation provides opportunities for interested staff to gain experience and put their theoretical learnings into practice with short-term security placements.

One big challenge across all organisations, however, is that security managers often have limited options for career progression. There is a lack of salary competitiveness within NGOs when compared with opportunities in the private sector, and this affects security staff retention. Organisational recognition of the professional and crucial nature of the role in enabling access and effective programming is a key starting point for encouraging non-traditional security experts.

Linking with the duty of care discussion, one of the problems is recruiting the right person for the position. For security roles, people will often look for a traditional security background such as military or police. However, discussions amongst participants identified the ability to undertake an effective risk assessment, communicate and develop networks and relationships were as (if not more) important than the technical security skills.

The International NGO Safety and Security Association (INSSA) will shortly be launching an NGO Security Professional Development Programme (PDP) based on a certification framework for country and regional security staff. This will help employers identify if potential staff have the competencies required as well as showing individuals that there is professional recognition available. INSSA also offers a mentoring programme to develop both existing and new security risk management professionals. You can visit INSSA’s website for more information.


Are IHL and its existing enforcement mechanisms suitable for protecting aid workers?

The increase in attacks on aid workers and the impunity perpetrators enjoy fuels the need for a conversation about international humanitarian law and its role in the protection of aid workers. This session gave the forum participants the opportunity to take a step back and ask some difficult questions.

IHL is a robust legal framework that provides protections to all civilians (which include aid workers) in times of armed conflict. The panellists and forum participants, however, agreed that enforcement of IHL is weak and that this is the greatest concern for the protection of aid workers. In response, some organisations have argued that there is the need for a special mechanism for the protection of aid workers. This could, for example, take the form of a special mandate holder for the protection of aid workers within the United Nations (akin to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict). As one panellist noted, however, there are advantages and disadvantages to this initiative, which need to be considered carefully.

Some of the advantages include:

  • The Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) would be an independent actor removed from the aid system. This would put them in a position to engage with all authorities and groups, including groups that might be on UN blacklists.
  • Not all NGOs have the power and resources to protect or pursue justice for their staff. The SRSG would work for all aid workers equally.
  • The example of the SRSG for Children and Armed Conflict demonstrates that SRSG’s work can have a positive impact on an issue.
  • A lot of the SRSG’s work is confidential. This would help NGOs work confidentially with the SRSG, thereby mitigating potential risks to their humanitarian activities.

These are some points against:

  • In response to the comparison between the SRSG for Children and Armed Conflict and an SRSG for the protection of aid workers, it was mentioned that the former has been successful because of the very narrow mandate and a topic that no one can object to. This would not be the case for the SRSG for the protection of aid workers.
  • Caution would be needed for the involvement of the SRSG with the UN Security Council when they would report on cases of attacks against aid workers, especially when related to political events.
  • Taking into account the fact that most cases of attacks against aid workers reported in the media concern Western aid workers, it is unlikely that the SRSG would treat all cases equally and highlight the more prominent attacks on national aid workers.

One obvious point from this session is the lack of collaboration between advocacy and security professionals within NGOs. Advocacy staff, who are generally the experts on IHL, are often more interested in the protection concerns of beneficiaries rather than those of aid workers. Whereas, security staff are often more focused on managing the immediate incident rather than engaging with the longer term legal enforcement of IHL. How can we bring these two skillsets together to support each other? A few organisations, like the ICRC with the HCiD project, have campaigns linking protection and aid workers. However, they focus solely on the medical aspect of humanitarian work, as do a number of other advocacy initiatives.

This session ended with participants having more questions than they started out with, but this is a step in the right direction for us at GISF: encouraging debate and sharing ideas.

Do you have any thoughts on these sessions? We like to know what you think, so do not hesitate to contact us.


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