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Published: April 17, 2019

Key Learnings from the 2019 GISF Forum in Eschborn

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By Aisling Sweeney, GISF Research and Projects Trainee

Kindly hosted by GIZ in Eschborn, Germany, the first biannual GISF Forum of 2019 saw some 65 professionals from the sector come together to take part in sessions delivered by leading experts. Across two days, from 21 – 22 March, GISF members, speakers and guests explored contextual, theoretical and practical themes in security risk management for the aid sector. This blog gives an overview of the key messages discussed in three of the sessions, covering: the security context in Yemen; gaining and maintaining acceptance in a network age; and providing psychological care for survivors of sexual violence.


This contextual session began with a geopolitical overview of Yemen, in which the speaker outlined the three levels of conflict in the country:

  1. At the international level, the key actors are Saudi Arabia – whose coalition with the internationally-recognised President Abd Mansour Hadi represents one side of the conflict, the United Arab Emirates – another coalition country, and Iran – whose alliance with the Houthi rebels has not seen them particularly active on the ground.
  2. At the national level, Yemen has experienced a crisis of legitimacy, stemming from the Hadi/Houthi takeover but with roots predating the conflict. Such roots include long periods between elections and a longstanding loss of faith in weakened and divided government institutions.
  3. At the local level, ‘Pandora’s box’ has been opened, leading to increased tensions based on tribalism, politics, and opportunism. Attendees at the session heard that even local disputes are intertwined with wider national and regional politics, with catalysts including a wider culture of impunity (resulting in a disregard for humanitarian law), and a loss of trust in government.

Two speakers then presented on their experiences of operating in Yemen; one from the perspective of a governmental aid agency, and the other from the perspective of an international non-governmental organisation (INGO).  Operational and access challenges identified in the discussions included: the bureaucracy involved in the existence of two governments in South and North Yemen; the differing requirements from the governmental Ministry of Planning (MoPIC) and the Houthi National Authority for Managing and Coordinating Humanitarian Affairs (NAMCHA), as well as movement restrictions brought about by the proliferation of check-points. Finally, participants heard an account of the challenges of running offices in two areas of Taiz that are controlled by different sides of the conflict. A key take-home was the claim that Hadi-supporters are more receptive to, and willing to assist, NGOs whereas Houthis are largely more suspicious.

Acceptance in the Network Age

The main aim of this session was for attendees to gain an understanding of how acceptance-based security strategies can be, and are being, applied in an increasingly digitised and connected world. The discussion opened with an exploration of some of the dominant geopolitical trends in the network age. One such trend is the shift away from superpower dynamics towards hegemonic power, which is supported by technology’s ability to level the playing field. For example, in some instances (such as between the US and China, and the US and Russia), physical conflict is being replaced by the use of cyber to cause economic disadvantage and alter geopolitical dynamics. Relatedly, participants heard about the greater susceptibility of the West to a series of smaller actions that utilise the power of narrative and social media, as compared to sporadic, large-scale attacks. The speaker explained that the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS includes a unit whose sole purpose is to counter the narrative being spread by the Islamic State (ISIS). A key learning point for organisations from this presentation was the importance of developing a culture in which what you say is understood as being as important as what you do, and that communications teams must observe the core narratives of contemporary geopolitics.

Following this, attendees heard presentations from representatives of two international non-profit organisations using communications technology as part of their acceptance strategy. The first speaker discussed the importance of conducting media landscape scanning, which, among other benefits, can help to identify new ways to facilitate dialogue with existing and potential beneficiaries. One of the current problems they identified was the fragmentation of social media channels. Because of the need to be present where their stakeholders and beneficiaries are, the organisation grapples with coordinating and monitoring multiple accounts. This refers not only to the various social platforms of the organisation’s central communications (e.g. Twitter, Facebook), but also to the various additional accounts that exist on each of these platforms for their country offices and projects.

The final speaker explored the role of communications in improving stakeholders’ perceptions of their organisation. In their discussion of how to build an appropriate online profile, the speaker suggested that organisations should assess how high or low an online profile they wish to maintain by exploring, among others, the security, operational and reputational risks and benefits involved in each approach. In the speaker’s experience, because their organisation operates largely on activism and knowledge-building, they found an active, open and transparent online presence to be the most beneficial approach.

Managing Sexual Violence: Psychological Care

This popular session opened with an overview of GISF’s new guide, Managing Sexual Violence against Aid Workers: prevention, preparedness, response and aftercare. The expert-developed guide is aimed at those with a responsibility for staff care, safety and security, as well as those involved in processes aimed at preventing or responding to incidents of sexual violence against staff. The guide, which follows a survivor-centred approach, is available in both full and summary versions.

During the session attendees also heard from three clinical psychologists. A key learning point from the first of these presentations was the importance of organisational culture in preventing sexual violence. The speaker emphasised that environmental (social) factors have a greater impact on the likelihood of a person committing sexual violence than anything inherent in them (biological factors). Ways to improve organisational culture include: dispelling myths (about consent, for example); offering trainings on sexual violence, discrimination and gender; handling incidents and complaints of sexual harassment effectively and with sensitivity; improving reporting structures, and discouraging toxic masculinity.

The next presentation, from a practitioner within an internal psycho-social support unit, offered some key lessons in providing psychological care for survivors of sexual violence. Some of the good practices identified include: involving the survivor in all decisions (e.g. support options and decisions about their further assignments, internal communication); offering team support (e.g. mandatory after-action review, debriefing sessions for colleagues and superiors); and creating general awareness on managing sexual violence among staff (e.g. through onboarding and trainings).

The final speaker outlined three key considerations for organisations when providing care for national staff:

  1. Create access to psychological care. For organisations, this can include building capacity among staff to support survivors, maintaining an up-to-date list of vetted local service providers prior to incidents occurring, and planning, including logistics like the language level and technology required, for using remote support services.
  2. Consider relationship Organisations should understand that naturally-occurring relationships play an important role in survivors’ decisions about who to report the incident to, and who to turn to for support. This means that all staff should be prepared to receive a disclosure, and confidentiality should be built into the organisational culture.
  3. The company as a parent. In many cases, national staff consider the company almost as they would a parent. This means that in times of crisis, organisations should respond quickly with in-person contact where possible, and be careful not to over-promise. At all times, boundaries of care should be communicated frequently and consistently.


Many thanks to all of those who spoke at, attended, hosted and supported this event. We look forward to seeing GISF members at our next forum in September.

For information on becoming an GISF member, please see our eligibility criteria.



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