How can we, as local humanitarian staff in conflict areas, ensure that our staff and programmes are safe when our international partners appear to abandon us when it comes to security risk management budgets? How can we continue operating while not being able to ensure minimum safety and security standards for our staff members and beneficiaries? Fares Al Saleh from The Syrian Association for Relief and Development (SARD) shares his experience working for a local NGO with international partners on security.
For the past six years, I have worked for the Syrian Association for Relief and Development (SARD), a local humanitarian organisation operating in northwest Syria. As SARD’s programming expanded to meet urgent, growing needs, it came to rely on a dedicated team of more than 100 field staff who devote themselves to supporting their communities in a time of need. While meeting these needs is what drives SARD, working in northern Syria comes with extreme risk. It is an area that has witnessed untold suffering over the past ten years and continues to face external threats and internal instability.
When I started with SARD, like most of my counterparts in Syrian NGOs, I had no experience in security. I had only become familiar with security in the context of compliance and ensuring funds and support did not fall into the hands of the wrong actors. However, it wasn’t until 2015, when the conflict in northwest Syria took a turn for the worse, that I became involved in developing security risk management (SRM) and contingency plans as part of SARD’s duty of care for its field staff. As an organisation, we began investing more and more resources, time, and energy into developing security risk management and contingency plans, adhering to the core principle that security risk management (SRM) is an integral part of duty of care.
As part of this process, I began discussing the risks our field staff face with our international partners and their donors. I spoke about the shelling near frontlines, airstrikes across the northwest, and growing lawlessness. Initial discussions were promising. Given the difficult conditions in northwest Syria, it was hard for anyone to question the scope and seriousness of the threats. Thus, I assumed our partners would be the first to support SARD in ensuring the safety and security of our field teams. Unfortunately, I was mistaken.
‘The donor doesn’t fund such additional costs.’
I still remember when I met one of our international partners at their headquarter (HQ) in Gaziantep, one of the safest cities in Turkey, to follow up on our request for SRM funds. Our partner stated that they could not contribute to our field safety and security budget because ‘the donor doesn’t fund such additional costs.’
Perhaps I am naive, but I couldn’t help but notice the irony. On the one hand, the donors would not support efforts by a Syrian NGO to ensure the security and safety of field staff working in one of the most dangerous contexts in the world. On the other hand, they provided international organisations (INGOs) with support to equip offices in Gaziantep with four-meter fences, gates with bullet shields, and dozens of surveillance cameras. While there have been legitimate concerns around security in Gaziantep, the thought that the same donors had little interest in ensuring the safety and security of SARD’s field staff was puzzling.
Over the years, there have been times when our international partners agreed to contribute to SARD’s safety and security budget. Nevertheless, when we got to the implementation, the rejections started: ‘Yes, we can fund first aid kits for staff and offices, but not medicine’; ‘You have to secure your warehouse, but we can’t fund surveillance cameras’; or ‘Yes, you have to track your staff movement and ensure their safety during field visits, but no, we can’t fund radios or walkie-talkies’.
Localisation of SRM: ‘You’re expected to get on with that sort of thing on your own.’
In recent years, there has been a push towards localisation in discussions around humanitarian aid and partnerships between local NGOs, international NGOs, and donors. While discussing SRM with an international partner recently, I was told, ‘you’re expected to get on with that sort of thing on your own.’
My optimistic view is that international partners and donors assume local NGOs operating in a context they know intimately can navigate risks in an appropriate way. In this case, partners and donors believe that the support they provide to local NGOs inherently contributes to localised SRM efforts. However, localisation can also simply be an excuse for international partners and donors to offload risk onto local NGOs while knowing that we don’t get funding for any of the so-called ‘admin fees’ or overhead costs. In this case, what if I am unable ‘to get on with it?’ Do our partners and donors care? Could our partners share the seven per cent overhead they receive from the back donors for each project we implement together?
While the reality is probably somewhere in the middle, meaningful local action needs localised SRM, which is an integral part of duty of care. Partners and donors need to readily provide local NGOs with support for SRM. Part of this means giving local NGOs financial support for SRM related planning and expenditures. But partners and donors also need to understand that local NGOs can’t always ‘just get on with it’ without technical support around SRM itself.
Local/national NGOs on their part also need to develop their in-house practices and processes for decision-making on how to approach funding channels and enable their international partners to mainstream considerations of SRM and a ‘Safety First’ approach. In parallel, international and local partners must accept, adopt, and advocate for a move to local action that includes considerations around the safety and security of local humanitarian staff working in volatile contexts.
About the Author
Fares Al Saleh, born in Aleppo – Syria, is a Co-Founder and the Head of Programs at The Syrian Association for Relief and Development (SARD), based in Turkey. When the Syrian war reached his city in 2012, Fares moved to Turkey and entered the humanitarian field with Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), managing multi-sectoral humanitarian programs for internally displaced people in northwest Syria. Since then, Fares has worked with several international NGOs such as Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and Foundation Caritas Luxembourg (FCL).
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