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Published: February 28, 2018

Investing at the sharp end of risk

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Kelsey Hoppe is the CEO of Safer Edge, a UK-based security risk advisory company. She has lived and worked abroad for the past 25 years including 13 years in high risk environments with humanitarian and development organisations. She is the author of two books, Staying Safe on Your Year, In Lahore: A Contemporary Guide to the City; and the lead editor and author of Chasing Misery: An Anthology of Essays by Women in Humanitarian Aid. Kelsey specialises in organisational development and helping organisations think about, and implement, their duty of care through security practice.


As individuals we focus our time and invest our money relative to our priorities. Greater amounts are spent on items of higher priority and less on those of lower priority. What is true for individuals is true for organisations. Our training budgets reflect our organisational priorities in terms of capacity and skill building for staff. At present, many NGOs are not sufficiently investing in security training for their local and national staff. This needs to change.

It is well documented that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are working in challenging times and in high-risk locations. Each year, the Humanitarian Outcomes Aid Worker Security Report highlights the gauntlet of security risks that aid workers run in some areas of the world to do their work. To manage this, many NGOs have increasingly relied on remote management and increased their implementation through national partners. Authors Ashley Jackson and Steven A. Zyck discuss this, along with the transfer of risk inherent in such approaches, in Presence and Proximity: To Stay and Deliver, Five Years On. GISF has also looked closely at this issue in their briefing paper, ‘Security Management and Capacity Development: International agencies working with local partners’.

Who is at the sharp end of risk?

Many documents and studies point to a common conclusion: the people at the sharpest end of risk – the places and times where threats, and individual exposure to those threats, are the greatest – are increasingly our local staff and local partners. We could assume then, that these people would see the greatest investment in their training to prepare them for the threats they may face. Instead, the opposite tends to be the norm. Within NGOs, intensive (and expensive) security training is typically provided for those who are the most protected, the most likely to be relocated or evacuated, and those least likely to face the sharp end of risk. In other words, international staff.

In GISF’s recent podcast on challenges for humanitarians working in the field, Salah Noori, a national staff member employed as a Programme Advisor in Iraq, highlights the unequal provision of security training in his organisation, saying, ‘most national aid workers believe that overall security management and the balance between nationals and internationals was improving, but most also feel they are more exposed and under a greater burden of risk than their international counterparts’. In light of this, Salah continues that, ‘it is imperative that we invest in building the security capacity of our national staff’.

Below is a graphic representation of what I have experienced in most organisations in terms of the number and type of staff and the budget amount spent on them:

I saw this discrepancy first-hand in Pakistan from 2013-2016 when I worked at the Pakistan Humanitarian Forum as the Head of Safety and Security. Many of the international NGOs (INGOs) working in Pakistan considered it a ‘hostile’ environment so international staff were given Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT) before they were deployed. Whilst HEAT training was certainly necessary for Pakistan at one time, by 2013, travel outside Islamabad for international staff had been restricted by the Government. Most had to stay in Islamabad which at the time was one of the calmest and safest cities I had ever visited. However, the security training locally available to national staff and partners who continued programme work in field locations was minimal to non-existent. These individuals rarely had the means, or the visas, to travel out of Pakistan for security training. Neither could training providers get the visas, nor the critical mass of INGOs with funds to pay for training, to deliver courses to national staff in-country.

I believe that my experience in Pakistan was not unique and highlights a problem experienced by national staff and NGOs around the world. Are humanitarian international staff based in Khartoum, Beirut, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, and Istanbul receiving world class security training while the South Sudanese education team heading out of Juba to the former state of Eastern Equatoria is not receiving enough?

Why does this imbalance exist?

It could be that NGOs are simply looking at risk differently and making a calculated decision to invest exactly where the most risk lies; not the security risk of injury or death, but the reputational risk of legal action and reputational damage if things go wrong for international staff. While it is possible that a host government, or the family of a national staff member, could pursue legal action against an NGO, it is far less likely than international staff doing so. The family of an Afghan driver is unlikely to understand ‘duty of care’ and hold the organisation to account if it was lacking. The family of an internationally-deployed nutritionist or water and sanitation engineer is another story.

It could also be, and I hope this is the case, that we are simply in a process of maturing and professionalising the NGO sector. There is an increasing awareness among NGOs of the need to meet their legal and moral duty of care of which security training is a critical element. We have started with international staff but are working towards spreading that through every part of the organisation. As NGOs strive to localise their delivery and empower local actors – including their own national staff – security training for them should become an increasing priority.

The intention of this blog is not to criticise NGOs. The number of competing pressures for limited resources is often unreconcilable. Given that the budgets for security training and capacity building within NGOs are limited and ‘pinched’ by other overhead priorities, ‘who gets the security training’ is a key question. I have felt that pinch myself while working with an INGO in South Sudan. We had over 500 local staff working with us at any given time and there were no readily-accessible resources for me to provide them with security training. In the face of donor and programme demands, as well as the pressure to keep overheads down, the prospect of delivering some form of security training to all 500 national staff seemed like a pipe dream.

However, I believe that the oft-quoted piece of business advice from Tom Northrup holds true, ‘all organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they are now getting. If we want different results, we must change the way we do things’. It is time to revisit how, and for whom, we provide security training. A good place to start would be to analyse the need for, and types of training, we are providing to which staff and partners. Without a doubt, many organisations are fulfilling their legal duty of care by providing good, reputable security training to their international staff – whether they are deployed in high or low risk locations. This is not in question. The question is whether we are fulfilling our legal duty of care to our national staff and local partners. And, even if we are meeting the minimal legal requirements, are we fulfilling our moral duty of care? The GISF briefing paper ‘Duty of Care: A review of the Dennis v Norwegian Refugee Council ruling and its implications’ is a useful point of reference for understanding the difference.

Possible solutions

There are some excellent examples of investment in national staff security training already taking place. CARE, an international NGO with approximately 4,000 staff in over 40 countries worldwide, has spent the past two years developing a programme which focuses on ensuring that their national staff based in high-risk countries (i.e. Afghanistan, Mali, Yemen and Syria) are trained in trauma first aid in their local language. This innovative programme qualifies, equips and supports national staff in these countries to become Trauma First Aid Trainers so they can return to their countries and train other national staff. To date, 45 CARE national staff have become qualified and returned home to train 1,200 other staff using a standard curriculum in their local language. The training has been so successful that CARE plans to add other core topics to the curriculum to enhance readiness and resilience in areas where staff face the greatest danger.

There are any number of other ways that we can address the imbalance. Due to significant advances in digital communication, we can project learning through the Internet and mobile devices to some of the most remote places on earth. How can we work together to truly develop best practice in how international organisations and agencies work on security practice with local partners? GISF’s current research looking at how local organisations view security practice is a good start. But I would argue that each organisation needs a dynamic and responsive way to provide security training appropriately and where it is most needed. As someone who works with organisations to analyse security training needs, provide a tailored curriculum and resources to meet those needs, I do not pretend that this is something which can be achieved easily or quickly. However, I do believe that it is worth it because our national staff and partners are worth it. Their health, well-being and continued effectiveness in high-risk environments are paramount to our continuing to successfully provide humanitarian assistance.

If, as humanitarian and development organisations, we take our duty of care seriously and believe that every employee of our organisation, or those who collaborate with us in our work, is of equal value, then we should care deeply about ensuring that those who face the sharpest end of risk have the greatest ability to do so.


Sources and Further Reading

Aid Worker Security Report 2017 –  Behind the attacks: A look at the perpetrators of violence against aid workers, Humanitarian Outcomes, August 2017, https://gisfprod.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/2217-Humanitarian-Outcomes-2017-Aid-Worker-Security-Report-2017-Behind-the-attacks-A-look-at-the-perpetrators-of-violence-against-aid-workers.pdf.

Presence and Proximity: To stay and deliver, five years on, Ashley Jackson and Steven A. Zyck, June 2017, http://www.unocha.org/sites/unocha/files/Presence%20and%20Proximity.pdf.

Security Management and Capacity Development: International agencies working with local partners, European Interagency Security Forum, Iesha Singh et al, Dec 2011, https://gisfprod.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/1096-Singh-2012-International-Agencies-Working-with-Local-Partners-.pdf.

Duty of Care: A review of the Dennis v Norwegian Refugee Council ruling and its implications, Maarten Merkelbach and Edward Kemp, 21 Sept 2016, https://gisfprod.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/2100-EISF-Sept-2016-Duty-of-Care-A-review-of-the-Dennis-v-NRC-ruling-and-its-implications.pdf.


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