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Published: May 21, 2024

In the Spotlight: can recent media attention support advocacy for better humanitarian security?

By: James Blake Christian Kriticos

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Recent progress on legislation for crowd security in the United Kingdom might offer some inspiration for the humanitarian sector. James Blake and Christian Kriticos explore how we can leverage media attention to advocate for better security for aid workers in this context.

The power of advocacy – building positive change in the wake of tragedy

On 22 May, 2017, the United Kingdom suffered one of its worst terrorist attacks in living memory. The Manchester Arena was targeted by a suicide bomber after a concert by singer Ariana Grande. Twenty-two people died and more than 1,000 were injured.

This horrifying event captured the attention of the UK public and media with a unique power – not just because of the scale of the attack, but also because many of the victims were children and young people.

In the aftermath, one parent, Figen Murray, decided to leverage this media attention to advocate for positive change and prevent attacks like this from happening again. And she has had significant success in her mission.

Earlier this year, a new protect duty bill, named Martyn’s Law (after Murray’s son), entered the latter stages of consultation within the UK government. This means it will soon become law. This legislation will require venues with a capacity of over 100 people to improve security against the threat of terrorism, train their staff with free online resources provided by the government, and have a counter-terrorism plan in place. Premises and public events with a capacity of 800 individuals or more will face even more stringent requirements.

Murray’s campaign began as a simple online petition. But such is her passion for more effective security, that she soon dedicated her entire life to it. As her efforts gained greater attention, she was able to work more systematically with a team of co-campaigners, meeting government officials to transform her vision into a workable law. Her campaign has been so successful that the White House is even monitoring the progress of the bill.

Can we draw inspiration from the Martyn’s Law campaign for advocacy in the humanitarian sector?

As we mark the seventh anniversary of the Manchester attack this week, it is worth reflecting on whether there are any lessons we can take from Murray’s campaign to advocate for better security risk management in the humanitarian sector.

One commonality we share with Murray’s case is around media attention. As humanitarians, we know how rare it is for aid worker security to get any coverage in the press. But this year has been different. In March, an Israeli airstrike led to the deaths of seven of World Central Kitchen’s aid workers in Gaza, gaining high levels of attention in the media. Beyond that, record-breaking statistics around aid worker deaths have grabbed headlines and made the public more aware of the issue of humanitarian security than perhaps ever before.

Just as Murray’s campaign began with a simple online petition, is there not a way that humanitarian organisations can capitalise on this media attention in a similar way? Many organisations now have dedicated advocacy departments, which know how to influence change in the most effective ways. Would now not be a good time to work with them to make a change for security risk management?

What would a protect duty for the humanitarian sector look like?

While most of us will agree that ‘something’ needs to be done to improve humanitarian security management, it is much more difficult to identify exactly what this ‘something’ is.

The success of Murray’s campaign hinged on the fact that she had a practical solution. During the course of her advocacy, she even completed a master’s degree in counter-terrorism, to ensure she had the knowledge to suggest a legislative change that would be both feasible and effective.

In the case of the humanitarian sector, applying a common law on security would be much more challenging. Many organisations straddle multiple countries, with a wide variety of legal frameworks. One could suggest forming a coalition of states to enforce legal standards for risk assessments and security preparedness within high-risk jurisdictions. But the possibly of achieving this seems remote!

Rather, a more effective target of advocacy for security risk management might be funders. The policies and practices of many humanitarian organisations are already driven by the demands of donors. So, working with them to ensure good security practices become a greater focus of their frameworks might be an effective solution.

Advocating with donors for investment in security risk management

The subject of advocating with donors for more investment and attention in security risk management came up a couple of weeks ago at Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Weeks (HNPW) in Geneva (an annual conference organised by UN OCHA). In fact, it was the subject of an entire panel discussion.

In the discussion, the panellists suggested that the ways we currently talk about security with donors are not always effective. They argued that negative leverage is often used; whereas, positive leverage may be more influential. For example, the panellists suggested that organisations need to make a business case for security, rather than framing it as all about compliance. This means, we need to advocate with donors to persuade them why including security as an additional item in their budgeting is actually a good investment for them. A simple example from one panellist was a true story of a humanitarian operation in Africa that experienced over 100 carjackings in a year. Investing in preventative security measures would certainly have been less expensive for donors than replacing all those vehicles!

Another reflection from the panel highlighted how media attention around the conflict in Syria influenced donors last decade. It persuaded them to start talking about security risk management more than ever before. As a result, some donors became strong advocates and investors in humanitarian security. But now might be a good time to start these conversations again. With 2023 being a record-breaking year for aid worker deaths, we might be able to influence even more donors to model the practices of those who became ‘early adopters’ of security support.

But it is not just about donors giving more money. They can also become more rigorous in their assessment of organisational security plans. These could become a requirement of funding applications – not just as a ‘tick box’ exercise, but as a vital cornerstone of any proposal. In this way, although donors do not regulate in the conventional sense, they can help ‘regulate’ the sector by prioritising funding for those organisations that have the most robust security standards.

This would tie into Murray’s philosophy with Martyn’s Law. One vital component of her proposed legislation is that it has a ‘push factor’ – in the form of fines and other punishments for non-compliance. In this case, the ‘punishment’ for organisations with weak security practices would be that they miss out on funding.

We should also take inspiration from Murray in the sense that we cannot expect these discussions to emerge organically. Rather, we should be proactive, be clear in what we want, and be clear in who we need to ask. And, above all, we must be patient – after all, Martyn’s Law is still in progress seven years on from the Manchester attack.

No programmes without security; no security without resources

As one panellist at HNPW concluded, there are “No programmes without security; no security without resources.” Now is the time to ask donors for those resources. By doing this, we can establish new standards for security funding that will continue into the future. In this way, we can turn the recent, recording-breaking losses of aid workers into an opportunity – to implement the changes necessary for staff to continue to save lives in the most challenging environments.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not represent the views or position of the authors’ employers.

About the authors

James Blake has worked in security, conflict risk and humanitarian risk management for over 15 years. He has served as an intelligence analyst for The Risk Advisory Group, an embedded regional security advisor at the International Monetary Fund, a partner for the Soufan Center and Truepic, and within the preparedness unit at the International Rescue Committee. James has published a book on security risk management and climate risks, titled Crisis Readiness: How Business Leaders Can Better Prepare for Tomorrow on Issues from Climate to Cyber. He also wrote a chapter for the US Western Hemisphere Drug Commission, which was presented to the US Foreign Affairs Committee in December 2020.

Christian Kriticos is the Communications Lead for the Global Interagency Security Forum (GISF). He joined the GISF Secretariat in February 2024, having previously held roles at UNICEF and a number of museums and heritage charities. Christian also works as an arts and culture journalist, with articles published by The Guardian, the BBC, The Telegraph, and many more.


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