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Published: January 27, 2021

How to effectively advocate for aid workers’ protection?

By: Léa Moutard

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Following the tragic attack that killed seven of its staff members, the NGO ACTED launched a global call for action to improve the protection of aid workers. Capturing international attention, the movement sparked new debates between NGOs, governments and the UN. As these conversations around how to better protect humanitarians unfold in high-level meetings, there is an opportunity for security and advocacy staff to work together. This blog explains why joint advocacy efforts are vital to achieving substantive change in aid workers' protection.

At the last French National Humanitarian Conference (CNH), President Emmanuel Macron, surrounded by representatives of various French NGOs, reaffirmed his commitment to protecting aid workers. As I watched participants discussing issues from holding those who perpetrate violence against aid workers accountable, to the possibility of appointing a special UN envoy dedicated to the matter, I felt thrilled about possible improvements. But I also couldn’t help noticing the absence of security managers at the discussion table. Why were the very people whose daily job it is to keep aid workers safe not there to share their ideas and experience? Security managers should be part of these conversations to ensure the proposed solutions are realistic and implementable.

What’s being discussed?  

Along with the 63 signatory organisations, ACTED has called on the ‘international community to strengthen the international protection framework for all humanitarian workers.’ The declaration expresses the urgent need for action in the face of rising needs for humanitarian assistance and the paradoxical decrease of humanitarians’ ability to meet them. It highlights the enduring attacks against aid workers, growing violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) with full impunity and restrictions imposed by governments on aid. The request ends by asking for the creation of a UN ‘reporting, monitoring and investigation mechanism’ to bring perpetrators to justice and enhance judicial cooperation.

This call for action sparked a reaction from the French government, which organised a discussion on compliance with IHL and humanitarian access as part of the CNH. The President further affirmed his willingness to work with the UN Security Council (UNSC) to improve aid workers’ protection.

ACTED’s advocacy efforts created an opportunity for real change. Yet for this change to have a significant impact, the people who have worked on humanitarian security risk management for decades need to actively participate.

Why should security and advocacy work together?  

There are three reasons why greater collaboration between security and advocacy is needed.

The first is that security managers have the information required to create the evidence base that will support an effective advocacy strategy, and that advocacy experts know how to make their voices heard for action to be taken. However, security management staff often have no direct contact with protection and advocacy staff on a day-to-day basis. This means that any joint efforts will require conscious choices from each side to get to know the other better.

The second is that the current high-level meetings may lead to decisions affecting the whole humanitarian space and all aid workers’ and organisations’ security. However, these decisions can only have the desired impact if they are based on knowledge of the situation on the ground. This requires taking time to consult different humanitarian actors. Without the inclusion of security managers, there is a risk that the practical concerns of those working to keep humanitarians safe and secure – at the headquarter and field level – will be left unaddressed.

Lastly, making the right decisions requires involving the right expertise. Staff responsible for keeping aid workers safe have spent years developing strategies to improve security risk management. They have forged elaborate networks extending across the whole world to share their experiences and lessons learned with the help of GISF and other regional and country-level groups. They know what keeping aid workers secure means in practice: the external and internal challenges NGOs face, the realities of working in high-risk countries, and the difficulties of managing security remotely. The crises, kidnappings, and killings that are now in the spotlight were first handled and reported by these professionals.

To ensure that governments, UN agencies and NGOs are doing everything they can to protect aid workers effectively, humanitarian security risk managers’ expertise must be used within current discussions.

Get involved

To influence the current developments, security managers must proactively engage in the advocacy and policy efforts on aid workers’ protection. Here are a few steps to consider:

  • Identify the changes you want to see: to influence decisions, security managers must have clear demands and arguments. GISF is talking with its members, bringing both the security and advocacy sides together to kickstart this conversation. Join this discussion and reflect with others in the sector on what needs to happen from an SRM perspective.
  • Make allies: change happens through collaboration. Thanks to NGOs’ advocacy and policy staff, the current momentum has been built, and those managing security need to engage with them. To achieve concrete progress on aid workers’ protection, security and advocacy expertise must be combined.
  • Speak up: security managers must actively participate if they want to have a say in strategic conversations. A lot of knowledge already exists but is often not known beyond security teams. This needs to be shared so that all humanitarian actors can utilise this expertise.

The current discussions on aid workers’ protection are an opportunity to make a difference in the security of all humanitarians. To seize it, security, advocacy and policy staff will need to work together.

GISF is organising a member-only webinar for all staff interested in this topic on the 28th January. If you are interested in attending, please contact Tara Arthur, at gisf-americas@gisf.ngo .


About the author:

Léa Moutard currently works as Research Advisor at GISF. As such, she is responsible for developing practical and original research, along with best practice guides to help humanitarian organisations face security issues. She promotes partnerships across sectors to facilitate information-sharing and foster dialogue on security risk management



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