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Published: May 16, 2018

Key learnings from the 2018 GISF Forum in Utrecht

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This blog was written by Andrew Eckert, Research Assistant at GISF.


On 15th and 16th March, GISF held the first bi-annual Forum of 2018 at the ICCO headquarters in Utrecht, Netherlands. This two-day event was attended by 61 GISF members, speakers and guests to discuss some of the key topics within NGO security risk management affecting the humanitarian sector. This blog will highlight three of the main sessions at the Utrecht Forum and the issues that were discussed: the Rohingya refugee crisis and its implications for humanitarian security, tackling fraud and corruption in NGOs and preparing staff for mission deployments.

The Rohingya crisis

To set the scene, the session began with a social and political overview of the crisis. To date, it is estimated that more than 900,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled their homes in Myanmar to Bangladesh in what the UN has described as the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis. There are multiple factors which make the situation particularly complex at a local level. To name a few, in many areas the number of Rohingya exceeds the size of the host community, placing greater strain on already limited public services. Furthermore, disputes have arisen regarding the appropriation of agricultural land for Rohingya settlements and the impact that the refugee community has had on the local labour market and the price of commodities. These tensions have been further aggravated by some senior figures in the host community who have also advised the local population against working with international NGOs.

Following on from this two NGOs, one based in Europe and another in Bangladesh, shared some important security risk management lessons they had learned in this context:

  • Effective communication and good relationships with national and local law enforcement bodies and the military are instrumental for the security of locally hired staff.
  • A 24/7 line of communication between staff and their NGO is important to ensure a timely response to security incidents.
  • Where possible, NGOs should provide staff with accommodation and food to limit displacement and the exposure of staff to day-to-day security risks.
  • Natural disasters pose a risk in this context so all staff should be well-versed in contingency plans for incidents such as cyclones, mass fires and flooding.
  • Developing good relations with key stakeholders in the local community such as leaders and traders is essential to create a positive image within the local community.
  • A key aspect of reputation management in this context is ensuring that NGO facilities are not used for criminal activities.

Fraud and corruption

Whether originating internally or externally, NGOs are accustomed to dealing with fraud and corruption. In many cases, such incidents require the direct involvement of the security focal point. One panellist shared some of their organisation’s experience of corruption and offered practical advice for handling cases:

  • Collusion between multiple individuals can mean that cases of fraud extend beyond an organisation’s sphere of control.
  • No fraud prevention system is without weaknesses and it is often those who understand the system most who take advantage of loop-holes.
  • It is important to conduct random checks.
  • Conduct a risk assessment to understand the risks that a case of fraud may pose to an organisation and consider how to manage the reputational impact.
  • Maintaining confidentiality is vital during and after an investigation.
  • Consider and, where possible, manage the risk posed by sharing sensitive information to an external body.
  • Ensure that there are sustainable measures in place to guarantee the safety of whistle-blowers (international and national).

Although this session produced many questions from GISF members, one of the most interesting discussions focused on ‘facilitation fees’. Some NGOs adopt the stance that their staff should only pay bribes when absolutely necessary and when denial of payment places their lives at risk. However, some actors may consider paying bribes as necessary to access beneficiaries. On this subject, the panel argued that any humanitarian organisation should make an informed decision regarding its stance on explicit corruption. If bribes are used to facilitate operations, it is vital to consider how this endorsement of corruption may impact the local context for both beneficiary communities and other NGOs. The key piece of advice offered by the speakers was that humanitarian organisations should make sure that the payment of bribes is justified and documented.

Rethinking staff preparation

In one of the most popular sessions at the Utrecht Forum, the panel discussed a range of issues relating to both security and human resources. These included reference checks, comprehensive briefings and mandatory health and psychological assessments.

One of the most interesting discussions centred around the behaviour of staff whilst deployed. Poor staff behaviour can have many consequences during a deployment from damaging a host community’s perception of an NGO to exposing staff to greater risks. This session considered two key methods of tackling this issue.

The panel advocated that a more systematic approach to checking professional references should be adopted by NGOs. In cases where references are followed up, they are often provided by colleagues who have worked with applicants on a mission, which can provide a limited picture of a candidate. Ideally, some of the questions posed to referees should focus on respect for security measures and behaviour. When possible, it is also good practice to ask for referee contact numbers as telephone conversations are often more informative than a carefully constructed email response. If a candidate does have a history of poor behaviour whilst on deployment and is known for breaching security measures, they may not be the right person to send on a mission. The panel also called for more comprehensive pre-deployment briefings which thoroughly explain the context of a mission and the penalties for failing to meet clearly defined standards of behaviour. This would enable NGOs to clearly communicate expected standards of behaviour and help to justify any necessary disciplinary action in the future.

Finally, an issue often related to staff behaviour is the need for NGOs to pay greater attention to the physical and psychological wellbeing of aid workers. The panel reflected that some organisations underestimate the value and need for psychological support for staff who are working in-country and need to do more to meet their duty of care. A positive step forward would be providing physical and mental check-ups for existing staff and new recruits to ensure that they are fit for deployment. Whilst it is more difficult to implement such measures for national staff, it is vital that international NGOs do not overlook these needs. After staff have been deployed it is also important that they have adequate medical insurance and that their stress levels are monitored and any negative coping mechanisms are identified. These measures would make a signification contribution to the wellbeing of all staff working in-country and help to promote a more positive security culture within an organisation.

The next GISF Forum

At present, we are organising the next Forum, which will take place later this year. If you would like to attend but your organisation is not a member of GISF, visit our website to read the eligibility criteria for membership.


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