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Published: August 8, 2018

Going Local, Going Safely

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This blog was written by GISF’s Research Advisor, Adelicia Fairbanks, and originally published on the ICRC website.


“I remember some years ago, we were in a region working. We were the Colombian Red Cross team and we came in the morning and we were doing some things. And then around lunchtime somebody came to talk with us…it was a sunny day – so beautiful. And [this person] said, ‘OK, what you are doing is nice, it’s very good, and so at what time you are leaving?’ And we said, ‘Maybe at five.’…and the person said, ‘You know, the weather is going to change. It maybe will rain – a lot. I advise you to leave at three.’ And we know that that was a clear message that some problems will come but they don’t want to damage or harm the Red Cross people. And then the person said, ‘When you are coming back?’ We said, ‘Well, next week.’ They said, ‘You know, the weather will continue badly. Maybe three or four weeks.’ And of course, we are not naïve and we followed the advice.”

– Oscar Alfonso Zuluaga Abdala, Colombia Red Cross Society

The role of local actors in supporting humanitarian efforts and the security of aid workers is not new. In many contexts, they have been at the forefront of humanitarian response for decades but their importance is not always recognised. This lack of recognition featured prominently at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 and resulted in the creation of the Grand Bargain localisation workstream. This workstream and other global initiatives, including the Charter for Change, aim to empower local actors to take a greater leadership role in humanitarian response settings.

In a recent event at the ICRC Humanitarium co-organised by the ICRC, the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF), and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), panellists from around the world discussed the security challenges posed by the global push towards the localisation of humanitarian action. You can watch the recording of the event here.

The discussions at the event evidenced that when it comes to security, the localisation agenda, although an important aspiration, remains a theoretical ideal that in policy and practice continues to fail to take into account how principles and perceptions influence partnerships and risk. The international humanitarian community is currently putting greater responsibility on the shoulders of local humanitarian actors – thereby increasing local aid workers’ exposure to risk – without offering them the tools they need to manage this risk. The humanitarian community must indeed ‘go local’ but it needs to ensure that it does so safely.

Principles, perceptions and risk transfer

In highly divided and fraught conflict settings, such as Syria, it can be a challenge for international humanitarian actors to engage in impartial and neutral humanitarian response activities. For local actors this can be twice as challenging. Local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) may be linked with particular parties of the conflict (whether intentionally or unintentionally) through local staff, leadership or community ties, with serious implications for their security as well as the perception and security of any international NGO that may be in partnership with them.

The opposite holds true as well. If an international NGO is perceived to have a particular political or religious agenda, the local community and other actors may assume that any local NGO that partners with this organisation must share the same agenda. In contexts such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Nigeria, where there is a history of anti-Western violence, ignoring the impact that a partnership between a Western international NGO and a local organisation can have on local staff’s acceptance in particular communities can be dangerous.

Although the term ‘risk transfer’ can carry negative connotations in the aid sector – with the To Stay and Deliver report highlighting examples of the unethical transfer of risk to national actors – the establishment of any partnership between two organisations will lead to a mutual transfer of risk. This is influenced by an organisation’s approach to principled humanitarian action, as well as how the organisation is perceived locally and internationally.

When it comes to local acceptance and security, perceptions can be more important than the truth. The interplay between principles, perception and risk transfer is, however, not regularly acknowledged in partnership arrangements and therefore not taken into account during the development of security risk management plans and capacity building efforts within both international and local organisations.

What does this mean for the localisation agenda?

Security is all about trust. Sensitive information is shared with organisations that are trusted by local communities, especially if the information shared places the informants at risk of retribution from other actors. The Lutheran World Federation has been in South Sudan for the last 20 years and has invested in building strong relationships with local communities, religious leaders, and local volunteers. It is through the support of these groups and the trust-based relationship established between them and the organisation, that LWF has been able to remain in the country.

The importance of local actors in humanitarian response cannot be underestimated, and it is crucial that the humanitarian community continues efforts to implement the localisation agenda and empower local actors to take greater leadership roles in humanitarian response. Key to supporting this realistically is to not overestimate nor underestimate local security knowledge and capacity.

Local knowledge

The anecdote shared at the start of this blog by Oscar Alfonso Zuluaga Abdala from the Colombia Red Cross Society evidences how important it is to rely on information from local actors to inform security risk management decisions.

“Another example is from Central African Republic. I was doing a mission there. And…I told them…in my organisation we have restrictions in the time when we can go to the field and come. And one of the drivers said, ‘You know, here you should drive during the night because it’s safer…during the night when the vehicle is passing the people who are attacking, they don’t know if it is a military vehicle or an NGO vehicle. They will never attack during the night. But during the day they can see the vehicle and identify who is coming and then they can attack.”

– Bonaventure Sokpoh, CHS Alliance (guest participant at the event)

While it is important to include local knowledge into security risk management practices and capacity building activities, it is important to analyse the information collected to distinguish between opinions and facts. Individual accounts, such as the one above, can fail to consider how individual personal profiles (e.g. ethnicity, nationality, gender, etc.) may exhibit different risk levels in particular situations, and do not take into consideration other factors, such as the higher rate of traffic accidents at night. Solely relying on individual thinking to inform security decisions without analysing different sources of information can be dangerous.

International NGOs need to provide their local partners with the resources and tools to appropriately obtain and analyse security information.

Local capacity

Statistics from Insecurity Insight and Humanitarian Outcomes show that local aid workers (from both international and national NGOs) are more likely to be involved in serious incidents than their international counterparts. In 2016 alone, the Aid Worker Security Database reports that there were 245 major attacks against national aid workers, compared with 43 against international staff members.

Despite this, local actors, whether they work for national or international NGOs, receive fewer resources and training opportunities than their international counterparts. Part of this may be related to the fact that many international organisations often erroneously assume that local actors have good security risk management practices in place simply because they are familiar with the context.

Engaging in any sort of assumption when it relates to security risk management places lives at risk. International organisations partnering with local actors should engage in participatory processes that aim to identify gaps in security risk management knowledge and skills, and build capacity accordingly. This needs to start with changing the attitudes of leadership, as well as organisational management and culture, by highlighting why security risk management is important. To complement this, the humanitarian community should invest in the establishment of permanent and regular trainings that are context-specific, build the governance and accountability mechanisms of local organisations, and train local actors on why and how to assess and mitigate risk.

A failure to do this, while continuing to place increasingly greater responsibility on the shoulders of local humanitarian actors, means increasing local aid workers’ exposure to risk without offering them the tools to manage this risk.

What is missing

Donor policy on localisation efforts needs to be reflected in donor funding strategies. At the moment, there is a lack of resources to realistically build the capacity of local humanitarian actors in security risk management. Due to funding shortages, local NGOs struggle to develop the long-term policies and systems needed to ensure the ongoing security of their staff. Local organisations, furthermore, find it difficullt to obtain appropriate insurance to protect their staff in case of incidents. International NGOs meanwhile struggle to find the time and resources needed to build context-specific security risk management trainings that cater to the long-term needs of their local partners.

Collective advocacy efforts are needed to educate and influence donors and insurance providers on what it will realistically take to implement the localisation agenda. These challenges and funding gaps are not trivial nor are they an easy sell to donors, but addressing them will save lives.

The localisation agenda is still in its early phases and what it means in practice is still unclear. However, any effort to push for greater local ownership over humanitarian response efforts will inevitably result in a complex interplay between principles and perceptions, as well as a mutual transfer of risk between international and local organisations. There is nothing inherently wrong or unethical about this transfer of risk. What would be unethical is to ignore it and place increasingly greater responsibility on the shoulders of local humanitarian actors without giving them the tools and the resources they need to keep themselves safe.



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