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Published: April 30, 2024

Find the Gaps, Fill the Gaps: reflections on GISF’s journey and our vision for the future

By: Jon Novakovic

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After one year in post, GISF Executive Director, Jon Novakovic, provides his reflections on the organisation's transition to independence and what it means for the future of NGO security risk management.

An anniversary is usually an occasion to celebrate. And reflecting on my one year in post as Executive Director of GISF, I can see that there is a lot to celebrate.

We have increased our funding, and have a suite of new and improved services on the way. Our membership continues to grow and diversify. Most notably, GISF became an independent organisation for the first time in February 2024.

Despite the bumpy path to independence, we have continued delivering the quality work people expect of us. This includes exceptional research – such as our recent articles on security in urban humanitarian responses and digital and physical risks – as well as our recent Spring Forums in Brussels and Washington, D.C., which were positively rated by over 80 in-person participants.

But despite all these reasons to feel good about GISF and the security risk management landscape, this one-year moment has been difficult to celebrate. With the aid worker death toll in Gaza now surpassing 200, you could be forgiven for taking a moment to wallow in pessimism.

In the aftermath of the killing of seven aid workers with World Central Kitchen in Gaza, I spoke to several media outlets, including the BBC and The i Paper. You can read some of my comments here. To be honest, it was hard to know what to say (that was productive and publishable). Because this horrific attack was a sad reminder that even with the best policies, procedures, resources and training in place, there are some things we cannot control and cannot prevent. And of course, this shrinking of civic space is not restricted to Gaza.

While we will never be able to create a ‘zero risk’ environment for aid workers, I believe we can still make a substantial difference. One need only reflect on how far the NGO community has come in managing risk over recent decades to see this – maybe that’s part of why Gaza is such a stand-out. So, I believe we have some reason to feel positive – because GISF is now in a stronger place than ever before, and the strength of GISF is simply a reflection of the strength of the NGO security risk management community.

A lot of my confidence in the future of our organisation (despite the scale of the global challenges) has to do with our independence. If you are a member or a close follower of GISF’s work, you have undoubtedly heard me talking about this over the past year. Perhaps you have shrugged and assumed that this independent status is merely an internal concern or a minor change in legal status. It is much more than that.

GISF’s independence is so important because it puts the fate of our organisation more squarely in the hands of our members. While we have always had the input and oversight of our Members Steering Group, the independent GISF is now structured more like a cooperative. That means members require us to provide solutions that work for them, rather than us simply saying “here’s a tool, take it or leave it”. We are (I am!) legally bound to deliver.

With the independent GISF, we have transitioned into an organisation that members truly have control of. And I can think of no better mechanism to support the safety and security of NGOs, than an organisation stewarded by NGOs. It provides the best opportunity to create solutions that are relevant and sustainable.

By and large, all of us in the NGO security sector face similar threats to different degrees. More often than not, one NGO has the answer to another’s question, so GISF will continue to ‘connect the dots’, providing opportunities for security professionals to build their networks and exchange ideas. Being led by members on what the challenges and threats are will enable GISF to play its role as the ‘connector’ much more effectively through our events, webinars, resources and online communities.

Our new strategy, which is being finalised this summer, reflects all of this. The key theme will be as simple as the challenges are complex: find the gaps, fill the gaps.

Finding the gaps for security risk management needs to go beyond basic anecdotal evidence from our members. Our members value GISF because they themselves are time-poor and resource constrained. So, we need to make it easier for members to feed in.

However, we also can’t just lean on our members for every direction. So, we are increasingly supplementing that organic ‘gap finding’ with new efforts to find the unanticipated gaps, particularly those coming over the horizon. We will be investing in data analysis, and being more actively present in forums across the international community. This will enable us to identify tomorrow’s issues, so NGOs can be better prepared today.

Armed with that understanding of the gaps, it’s then about acting on it. GISF aims to serve as a catalyst, to unlock the existing potential in the NGO community. And we aim to create pathways for more sustainable and locally led solutions.

To support the ambition of this new strategy we will be expanding our workforce, bringing onboard new staff with expertise in monitoring and evaluation, advocacy, security, and much more.

I believe that all these elements should give us reasons to feel optimistic, even in a current context that doesn’t always inspire positive thinking. Because GISF is now better equipped to respond to our members – and help you to translate this into impact for your staff on the ground.

Working in the NGO sector is hard. There are no guarantees in safety and security. But, we, as security risk management practitioners, need to constantly remind ourselves of the good work we are doing – even if it isn’t always visible.

As my second year with GISF begins, I will work to bring forward solutions that have an impact today, that eases some of the burden of your roles, and lets your organisations do the work they need to do. Through GISF, I want to prioritise finding proven solutions that work despite the resource challenges, bring in the resources that are needed, and make the case for safety and security as a positive force – not just a function that cleans up a mess.

With this ambition, enabled by GISF’s staff, members, Board of Directors, and other stakeholders, I believe we are better equipped than ever to positively impact the work all NGOs are undertaking. And if anything is worth celebrating, at this challenging time, it is that.

About the author

Jon Novakovic is the Executive Director of the Global Interagency Security Forum (GISF). He assumed the position in March 2023.

For any questions, comments or suggestions on GISF’s work and its future strategic approach, please feel free to contact the GISF team at info@gisf.ngo.


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