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Published: April 18, 2023

How Does Anxiety and its Social Defence Mechanisms Affect Security Risk Management Practices in the International Aid Sector?

By: Samuel Heer

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In our latest blog, Samuel Heer reflects on his experience working in Iraq's green zone, and considers how bunkerisation, anxiety, and social defence mechanisms impact how security managers make decisions regarding the security of staff, assets, and programmes. This blog also introduces Heer's upcoming research into the factors influencing decisions on security practices and approaches.

Professionally, Baghdad always left me exhausted and confused. In my function as regional security advisor for a diplomatic representation, I visited the city on multiple occasions in the late 2010’s – assigned with the challenging task of assessing risks and managing security to enable programming while keepings staff safe. Trying to meet interlocutors in the green zone (GZ) – a heavily fortified gated community of Embassies, international organisations, government buildings, and the odd wealthy Iraqi individual, was a painful experience. Access was only possible through an ever-changing system of colour-coded badges, registration procedures, and list-keeping. Concrete walls, barbed wire, checkpoints, K9 dogs, and heavily armed security personnel did their best to deter unwanted visitors. Once inside and welcomed by our partners from the international aid community, we would receive security briefings that were clearly generated inside the ‘bubble’ of the GZ and that did not accurately reflect the security situation outside the walls.

Most security briefings with ’like-minded’ security advisors in Baghdad were similar, each repeating the same things they heard in each other’s security briefings, not letting any data that would challenge their position enter their echo chambers. Whenever we addressed the taboo of how organisational benefit schemes such as danger pay, compensatory holidays, and preferential career developments may exacerbate the stagnation of unreasonably high-security postures despite an apparent reduction of risks in the environment, they got defensive, suggesting that we were probably lacking the necessary resources or professionalism to properly secure ourselves against the threats ’out there’.

At the airport on our way out, we had to pass no less than five layers of luggage scanning, run by different security entities, each one not trusting the other (for good reasons, as bottled water was randomly confiscated, or not, and often passed through all layers of security undetected). This always left me flabbergasted. I was relatively young and new to the business and often felt insecure about my deviating judgement of the situation from the more established players in the field. But the bunkered down approach to security I witnessed just did not make sense to me. There were too many inconsistencies, too many unanswered and dismissed questions, too much apparent self-interest, and simply not enough clear data to justify such security postures. For years to come I would be wondering whether I was completely ignorant, or if there was indeed a dynamic at play that would consciously and subconsciously shape the security risk management (SRM) approaches of international actors in conflict environments.


The vicious cycle of bunkerisation

The causes and consequences of bunkerisation amongst international aid actors have been the subject of various writings in the past decade. They highlight a vicious and self-reinforcing dynamic at play:

Figure 1: The vicious cycle of bunkerisation

It is easy to escalate to a higher security posture but very difficult to scale down. This can be due to a fear of being the weakest organisation and not wanting to test if the absence of security incidents is due to risk-mitigating factors or other reasons. A study on ‘risk management and aid culture in challenging environments’ suggests, that while aid agencies believe their SRM practices are based on objective, rational and accountable decision-making, observed realities suggest that actual risk management approaches are generally ’ad hoc, inconsistent and fragmented’. This is a somewhat sobering observation that deserves a closer look.


Cultures of anxiety in organisations

There is a trend towards more risk-aversion and security consciousness in Western societies. This is partially reflected in the proliferation of institutional, managerial, and architectural security measures in the international aid sector, including insurance requirements, duty of care concerns, standardised security protocols, and security training.

Organisational requirements often demand a ‘one size fits all’ approach due to limited available resources. This starkly contrasts the diversity of risks that arise and the assets to protect – a situation that leaves security managers and decision-makers in a constant tension of potential simultaneous over- and under-reaction. Individual staffs’ needs for safety and security are as diverse as staff itself. One and the same security protocol may be considered too lax (an institutional under-reaction) by one person and too tight (an over-reaction) by another. With the primary task of having to protect their staff and assets, many security managers would rather err on the safe side and are thus conservative in their risk management approach.

Why? Because while failures of SRM systems are easy to spot when they manifest in security incidents, the success of properly implementing such systems is difficult to assess. The absence of incidents cannot be measured, and even if compared to statistics, it cannot conclusively be said whether an incident didn’t happen because or despite the security measures in place. This situation puts any security manager or policymaker in a tight spot where they frequently must justify why they failed to do more (after an incident) or, conversely, why they come up with such stiff measures since ‘nothing ever happens’ (when incidents are prevented). The anxiety to fail in both directions is a constant companion. Where such anxieties are present, social defence mechanisms are not far.


Social defence mechanisms

Social defence mechanisms are unconscious psychological strategies individuals use to protect their self-esteem or hide their true thoughts and feelings in social situations. In organisations, they occur collectively, in either groups or the entire organisation. Examples include using bureaucratic rules and procedures to protect the organisation from criticism or change, blaming others by shifting responsibility for failure or negative outcomes to external factors, groupthink, and conflict avoidance. In international aid organisations, the tendency towards bureaucratic protocols is particularly visible amongst the bigger players. Groupthink and conflict avoidance is present inter-organisational, for example in security forums, where information often gets recycled, and opinions remain unchallenged due to social conformity and a lack of diversity of its members.

Ongoing research explores the different factors influencing decisions about specific risk-mitigation measures amongst international aid organisations. Being able to differentiate between objective (signal-based) and subjective (fear-based) factors influencing decision-making processes may improve the accuracy and precision of SRM. Trying to understand better the causes and consequences of cultures of anxiety and its effects on SRM practices is a small but crucial step towards a truly integrated and holistic approach to SRM.

If you are a member of an international aid organisation, you can make a valuable contribution to the topic by completing the following survey. You can find further details in the project’s literature review.


About the Author

Samuel Heer has been working in various security and crisis management roles in the diplomatic, humanitarian, and military world. Being a strong supporter of academia, he continues to move between all those systems to continuously broaden his perspective and understanding of the complex interactions between different social systems and their impact on organisational and individual resilience.


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