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Published: March 21, 2023

Humanitarian Access & Security Management: considerations for security staff

By: Eileen Morrow

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Given how much NGO security staff have to contend with already, why should they also be concerned with humanitarian access? This blog gives an overview of the access challenges humanitarians regularly confront and reflects on how security staff can support their organisations to manage and mitigate the associated risks.

What are humanitarian access impediments?

Humanitarian access impediments are any obstacles or restrictions that hinder the ability of humanitarian agencies to provide assistance or prevent crisis-affected populations from accessing services and protection. Access constraints can be physical, such as insecurity, roadblocks, or cash and fuel shortages, or bureaucratic and administrative, such as lengthy travel or project approval processes, which can lead to frustrations among people in need, as their needs are underserved.

Another type of access constraint, often overlooked by NGO security staff, is the presence of misinformation, disinformation, malinformation, and hate speech. Its impact on security should not be underestimated: stories have power, even false ones. For example, false statements and tweets that NGOs are ‘supporting the enemy’ are dangerous, as they can trigger, and subsequently justify, NGO staff being arrested or attacked.

What is driving access impediments?

It is often hard to pin down the sources of access constraints, but it is critical to reflect on who is driving them and why they are arising, so as to identify the best approach to addressing them and mitigating risk. One source of access constraints, for example, is a perception among some host governments that NGOs undermine national security or have different political, cultural or religious values that run counter to national interest.[1] More often, they are caused by problematic policy decisions and policy incoherence, and a lack of capacity to manage the ensuing bureaucracy.

At the heart of many access constraints lies a lack of understanding of NGO mandates and value proposition, which can lead to doubts or suspicions about their presence and purpose. Relationship building and perception management is core to both access and good security management.

Why should security staff be concerned about humanitarian access?

For many NGOs, acceptance is the bedrock of good security practice. Any threat to acceptance should therefore be of concern to NGO security staff. Access impediments threaten NGO acceptance as they restrict and delay the ability of life-saving assistance to reach crisis-affected communities, increasing suffering and often producing a sense of neglect. This can too easily escalate into a loss of trust and acceptance, placing organisational reputations and staff at risk.

At a minimum, NGO security staff should monitor the various access impediments impacting operations, so they can work effectively with their teams and the broader humanitarian community to address them.

This is easier said than done: staff can be reluctant to escalate access constraints internally due for fear that it indicates poor performance. They may feel shame and anxiety when they cannot secure permissions and blame themselves, rather than recognise the complex drivers behind access constraints. More problematically, faced with mounting project deadlines, staff might negotiate concessions with counterparts that undermine principled humanitarian response, promote rent-seeking behaviours, or impact community acceptance for their own agency and the broader response.

For example, a staff member under immense pressure from authorities might negotiate new health staff incentive rates to secure their health project agreement approval. This creates perceptions of unfairness among health staff in other areas and can (and has) resulted in strikes. The ensuing disruptions in essential services are then blamed on NGOs, undermining their acceptance.

In short, while security staff already have plenty on their plates, they must monitor and manage access constraints to ensure staff safety.

How can security staff engage in monitoring and addressing access constraints?

1. Share, triangulate, and analyse access constraints internally

Understanding the types, drivers, and impacts of access impediments is the first step to addressing them. Consider establishing an internal working group comprising programmes, security, operations, access, advocacy, and communications staff to identify constraints, analyse and mitigate risks, and develop organisational access strategies, red lines, and organisational positions in consultation with their senior management.

2. Train staff and create a culture of sharing and escalation pathways

Security staff can be crucial in strengthening communications, providing training, and encouraging information sharing. They play a key role in shifting organisational culture from ‘implementation at all costs’ to encouraging more reflective and strategic engagement on access issues.

For organisations without dedicated access staff, clear pathways need to be outlined for staff to escalate internal and external issues. Security staff can support risk analysis related to access issues and assist with the development and dissemination of internal policies and standard operating procedures.

3. Be proactive in building relationships and understanding

Building relationships with government authorities and non-state armed groups, where present, is vital to acceptance. While it can be appropriate in some contexts, operating ‘below the radar’ is rarely a viable long-term acceptance strategy. Security staff are often excellent at building relationships and networks and can be a valuable resource to guide staff engaging on access issues.

4. Engage the humanitarian community for a safer response

When faced with access impediments or security issues, all NGO security staff need to ask themselves the question – does this issue impact just my organisation, or could it impact other NGOs and people in need? In many cases, the answer is the latter. In these instances, access challenges must be shared and discussed (carefully) with other agencies in order to triangulate information, manage risks, and identify common positions before engaging with counterparts. This is critical to promoting acceptance of humanitarian action and staff safety.

5. Engage global expertise

It is easy to feel alone when confronted with access challenges. However, NGOs worldwide are grappling with the same or similar problems. ICVA’s Humanitarian Access Working Group meets monthly to discuss access issues and strategies to address them. The Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) also provides excellent trainings on negotiations and has a Community of Practice that programme graduates can join.

 To learn more about ICVA’s Humanitarian Access Working Group, please contact eileen.morrow@icvanetwork.org

[1] https://www.icvanetwork.org/uploads/2021/08/ICVA-Report.pdf


About the Author

Eileen Morrow is the Advocacy & Policy Coordinator in ICVA’s Humanitarian Coordination Team. Her focus is on collective action and influencing on humanitarian access and pandemic response in humanitarian settings. Prior to joining ICVA, she was the Ethiopia Humanitarian INGO (HINGO) Forum Director. She has worked as Country Director for Concern Worldwide in Ethiopia and Nepal and has a wealth of experience leading and supporting humanitarian response and development projects with NNGO and INGO partners in Asia, East Africa and Haiti. She holds a Masters in Humanitarian Assistance (NOHA) from the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from University College Dublin. She is based in Dublin, Ireland.


Image Credit: UN OCHA/Viviane Rakotoarivony


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