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Published: April 5, 2022

Faith-Based Organisations and Security: building acceptance for security risk management

By: Sarah Pickwick

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In 2021, World Vision commissioned a study on the interplay between security and the organisation’s Christian identity. Asking how they navigate security as a faith-based organisation, with a mandate to be open about its Christian identity, they wondered ‘How do we do this in a way that enables the effective and safe delivery of programmes?’. In this blog, Sarah Pickwick (Senior Security Analyst at World Vision) discusses the results of this research, and outlines some best practises identified for organisations to openly communicate their faith-based identity and build acceptance across programme contexts.

Context and complexity: Key findings  

Our study examined current issues, trends, questions, positive and negative impacts, and challenges raised in relation to faith and security. We did this through sixty-one interviews with fourteen national offices, our six regional offices, and global staff. We also spoke to twenty external peer organisations.

Here are the top key findings:

  1. Faith identity and security is heavily influenced by context, with different realities, needs, risks, and perspectives. It was therefore a challenge to draw out global or regional trends. People we spoke to were keen to emphasise there is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Approaches in different locations depended on a range of factors, both internal and external. Factors included, but were not limited to: level of fragility, religious composition and any related tensions, local history, interaction with geopolitics, the status of the aid sector, and our own organisation’s history and portfolio. This reiterated the balancing act that we perform as a global organisation. Our global brand requires the communication of a coherent and consistent faith identity as much as possible, whilst allowing for a degree of flexibility to contextualise.
  1. The global presence of our organisation means the words or actions of one individual or office (or fellow faith-based organisation) regarding our faith identity could negatively impact another office’s security by association. For these reasons, the findings affirmed our global policy whereby we need to clearly communicate our Christian identity. In fact, not doing this, could create more risk not less, such as suspicion of a hidden agenda!
  1. The identity of any organisation is always multi-faceted, interconnected, and complex. We noted that the fact that an organisation is faith-based can sometimes be assumed to be the cause of security risks. In reality, risks could actually be linked to another different association or grievance, such as being perceived as foreign, political (on account of our donors), Western, colonial or wealthy. Equally, risks could be due to issues outside of our control, such as different external expectations or perceptions held about the organisation’s staff, programmes, partners, or beneficiaries.
  1. The study reflected that many risks are often about other people’s perceptions of our identity, such as who we are and/or what we do, rather than what we seek to project. Perceptions, therefore, need to be taken as seriously as realities. This is why our paper, although it did identify common issues and challenges mentioned, and best practices used to manage those, was not intended to be a prescriptive ‘one size fits all’ response. Instead, it concluded by posing questions to be discussed at the local office level, to allow reflection on what other interviewees had raised, their responses and then contextualise and adapt their own responses. This could be, for example, in communications, profile management, projects or external relationships.

A selection of good practises

  • Approach and convey faith-based identity clearly, sensibly, and sensitively for transparency, both internally and externally. This is a key part of profile management. It is important to have a cohesive narrative in each context, as well as, to the greatest extent possible, across contexts. This includes being clear on who an organisation is and is not, in terms of mission and mandate, while allowing a degree of freedom in how this is explained to different audiences.
  • When staff have a good understanding of an organisation’s faith identity, they can more confidently explain it to various stakeholders and play a positive role in building acceptance. This in turn can enable good security.
  • Hiring staff with good communication, cross-cultural and relational skills as well as local contextual knowledge is key to building acceptance, including of an organisation’s faith identity.
  • Context analysis and context monitoring can help inform approaches to security and faith-based identity. Root cause analysis and early mapping of faith actors, their role in their communities, their perceptions of the organisation, and how the community perceives them, can be valuable tools to anticipate possible security issues.
  • Cultivating strong external relationships, as early as possible, is key for building acceptance. As a faith-based organisation, important external relationships often include faith actors representing the religious diversity of the context as well as with local authorities and community leaders. Strong collaborations and relationships can allow teams to more creatively and effectively deal with risks that might come by group association. This also creates opportunities for joint accountability of behaviours and approaches that are appropriate and culturally sensitive.

The analysis shows that there are many opportunities for faith-based organisations, including World Vision, to ensure that they navigate security to enable the effective and safe delivery of programmes, and mitigate risks. However, these opportunities do not converge in one single, correct approach. The research suggests there are opportunities for further dialogue on this topic in the aid sector, both between faith-based agencies and those of no faith, to share experiences, best practises and look at further opportunities to improve/collaborate.


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