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Published: February 16, 2021

Community Acceptance: a cornerstone of humanitarian security risk management

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What does it mean for NGOs to use an acceptance security strategy? And how can you measure acceptance levels in practice? In this blog, safety and security professional Jessica Skelly shares her perspective on why NGOs should focus more on building bridges through acceptance, instead of relying on walls.

Humanitarian security risk management (SRM) is a framework designed to reduce risks to staff, assets, and the reputation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). These practices aim to support the continuity of NGO operations while maintaining access to beneficiaries in insecure or unstable contexts. Leveraging the SRM framework, NGO security focal points build security plans led by acceptance, protection and deterrence strategies (more commonly known as the security triangle).

Acceptance and the security triangle

  • The acceptance strategy is based on reducing threats to aid workers t'The Security Triangle' from GISF's 'Security to Go' guidehrough community (and other stakeholder’s) approval, cooperation and consent. Proactive engagement and relationship building with local stakeholders promotes open access to vulnerable populations and reduces or removes potential threats to programme activities and the beneficiaries they serve.
  • The protection strategy focuses on reducing organisational vulnerability through physical security measures, including reinforced walls, razor wire, alarm systems, security cameras, etc.
  • The deterrence strategy centres around responding to an organisational threat with a counter threat, such as the suspension of activities, grievances filed with national-level authorities, and armed guards.

Those who are less familiar with humanitarian SRM might assume protection and deterrence are the most efficient or commonly used strategies in insecure contexts. In reality, many NGOs use acceptance as the cornerstone of their security strategies. That being said, NGOs should not assume acceptance will come easily when entering a new context. Relationships with key stakeholders must be built, nurtured and maintained continuously. It could take years of proactive engagement to establish legitimate credibility.

NGOs’ limitations of time, staff and resources are a few examples of why an acceptance strategy might not be prioritised. In lieu of acceptance or while building acceptance, NGOs may rely on protection or deterrence centric approaches to implement programming, using, for example, armoured convoys or heavily reinforced compounds. The caveat is that measures like these could compromise future NGOs’ acceptance by unintentionally criminalising the host community or breaking the local population’s trust.

Acceptance is not ‘one size fits all’ and is implemented very differently across the sector. Some NGOs take a more passive approach to this strategy, allowing positive outcomes from their programming to drive their acceptance. Others are more intentional and build acceptance activities into their programming and security strategy plans. Overall, a proactive approach is what is needed to create something potent and viable.

Why acceptance works

The acceptance strategy has been widely adopted by security focal points. It is considered cost-effective and sustainable. Acceptance promotes community buy-in to security through participatory programming and contributes to a harmonious partnership between NGOs and the communities they work with.

Once a good relationship between the NGO and host community is established, the NGO will likely better understand the local population’s needs, local context, trend indicator, and organisational vulnerabilities. This knowledge sharing will help strengthen programme impact while informing organisational standard operating procedures (SOPs) and contingency plans. Additionally, it will offer the NGO further insight into how they can support their staff on the ground during a crisis or critical incident.

Key elements of acceptance

While acceptance is implemented in many ways, some basic actions can help NGOs to gain communities’ acceptance:

  • Adhere to humanitarian principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.
  • Develop an actor map of all stakeholders (including conflict actors) who may be affected by the programming, before programme implementation.
  • Meet with the stakeholders to introduce your organisation, objectives, principles and understand their needs, once you’re on the ground.
  • Don’t over commit or oversell programming outcomes. Manage community expectations from the beginning. Transparency is key.
  • Encourage participatory programming approaches and the primacy of local actors.
  • Maintain and invest in relationship building with different stakeholders. Be proactive.
  • Be present and visible in the community. Stay accessible.
  • Uphold the organisational code of conduct on and off working hours.
  • Be respectful of cultural norms and traditions.
  • Ensure that a community feedback mechanism is in place and monitor it closely.

How to measure acceptance

Acceptance is difficult to measure, but organisations can use a couple of indicators to assess their acceptance levels:

  • Staff feel safe while at work or in their compounds.
  • There are few access issues or bureaucratic constraints.
  • Community leaders advocate on behalf of the NGO.
  • Community members approach the NGO to help resolve issues.
  • Community members share security information as needed with the NGO.
  • Community members are willing to broker solutions to conflicts between the NGO and other stakeholders.
  • A community feedback mechanism is utilised effectively.

Adopting an acceptance centric security strategy is a considerable undertaking. It requires significant patience, proactivity and flexibility. It is a long haul commitment and won’t yield results overnight. It can take years for an NGO to establish it to its fullest potential. However, proactive relationship building and ongoing community engagement will help pave the way ahead, in security and programming.

As we (humanitarian security focal points) continue our work in the sector, it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves that building bridges, not walls, is often the most secure way forward.

To learn more about Acceptance, please visit www.acceptanceresearch.org