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Published: October 12, 2017

Improving relations between programmes staff and security advisors

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Andrew Eckert joined the GISF Secretariat in September as the new Research Assistant. Prior to joining the team, Andrew completed an MA in Conflict, Security and Development before working for UNDSS as a research associate and as a risk intelligence analyst for a private security risk management firm.


In a recent interview for the GISF in Conversation podcast series, Eva Svoboda, a Senior Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, highlighted the importance of close interaction between personnel responsible for security risk management in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and staff responsible for programme delivery. However, during the course of my own research for a Master’s degree at the University of Exeter, I found that in some cases this ideal close relationship can be difficult to realise.

As someone at the beginning of my career, with some experience of both the private security industry and the third sector, I find the relationship between programmes and security personnel within NGOs interesting. This is partly because security risk management as we know it today is a prominent but still relatively recent phenomenon in the aid world. It is also because the effectiveness of the relationship plays a significant role in determining the success or failure of humanitarian programmes. It appears self-evident then that understanding this interaction and supporting it to reach the potential that Svoboda describes should be a priority for all humanitarian organisations.

Whilst a number of scholars within the academic community have recognised the complexity or importance of the relationship, such as Larissa Fast, Mark Duffield and Jean Renouf, it remains an issue that requires further attention. My objective here is to shed light on some of the perceptions, and misconceptions, within both camps, to promote discussion on this topic and finally to consider means by which to improve this relationship.

During the course of my research, two recurring issues emerged in discussions with programmes-focused aid workers concerning NGO security personnel: 1) that security staff sometimes restricted programming, and 2) that the military or law enforcement backgrounds of security personnel were not compatible with aid work.

The first issue of concern was the extent to which security staff restricted humanitarian access to beneficiaries. For example, one Red Cross worker complained that ‘so often they [security personnel] stand between us and the people who need our help by restricting our activities or trying to hide us away in a fortress.’ Three explanations were offered for this behaviour: that security staff were risk averse because they did not understand the value of a project, that they were unable or unwilling to do additional work to enable operations in difficult areas, and that they restricted humanitarian activities because it allowed them to justify their salaries.

The second main criticism raised by programmes staff was that they felt the military or law enforcement backgrounds of many security staff were incompatible with humanitarian work. An experienced staff member said, ‘unlike former police officers and soldiers, civilians and former humanitarians have a more inclusive approach to security, consulting workers in the field and making a decision based on their training, advice and feedback provided by the staff they are there to protect.’ This points to a perceived incompatibility between security and programmes staff that was also echoed by security personnel I spoke to. One security officer explained that ‘security officers and humanitarian staff experience a clash of personalities because they have different backgrounds and approaches.’ These perceptions may partially explain why some NGOs are choosing, where possible, for programmes staff to undertake security training, rather than bring in experts from outside the sector. A detailed discussion of the advantages or disadvantages of hiring NGO security personnel with specific backgrounds is beyond the scope of this discussion; however, I am inclined to believe that such decisions should be dependent on context, the needs of an organisation and the individual.

Among the security personnel I interviewed, it was common for programmes staff to be perceived as risk-takers when they are in the field. One security consultant, who had been involved with aid programmes for years before moving into security-focused roles, spoke of a ‘misplaced sense of invincibility’ amongst some humanitarian staff. When asked to comment on this statement, a member of programmes staff admitted that ‘sometimes aid workers are so focused on helping people that we forget about our own safety’. This echoes the concerns raised in Michaël Neuman and Fabrice Weissman’s book, Saving Lives and Staying Alive, of the so-called ‘heroisation’ of humanitarians.

Related to the apparent tendency of humanitarian staff to take risks was the issue of accountability raised by NGO security staff. All of the security personnel I spoke to felt that they were in an almost impossible position because they faced criticism for, on the one hand, appearing to be too risk averse but also, on the other hand, facing criticism when aid workers were killed, injured or kidnapped. This dilemma is recognised by Larissa Fast in, Aid in Danger, and can result in security staff taking the blame for security incidents as they famously did after the bombing of the UN offices in Baghdad in 2003 and Algiers in 2003. It must be said that organisations such as Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières have made inroads into combating this blame culture by making safety and security the responsibility of all staff, not just security personnel.

Although an attitudinal change at an organisational level is likely to have had a positive impact on this relationship, there remains room for improvement. As organisations become increasingly aware of their duty of care to ensure the safety and security of their staff, it is likely that we will only see more security personnel in NGOs. But how might we approach the thawing of relations?

I firmly believe that at the heart of this tension is a failure to communicate effectively. Whilst the stereotype of a dogmatic ex-military security manager is often unjust, it is fair to say that some individuals with a military or police background transition more smoothly to the humanitarian sector than others.

Despite the cultural differences, it is vital that NGO security personnel take an inclusive approach to security risk management. Consulting both international and national staff and integrating their experience into risk assessments will not only support security plans to accurately reflect the context, but also encourage staff to respect the resulting security measures and restrictions. Similarly, there is potential for aid workers to engage security personnel in programmatic discussions and planning. This would not only give security staff a more in depth understanding of the aims and values of projects but also encourage a sense of shared ownership of an organisation’s work. The potential programmatic benefits of improving the relationship between programmes and security staff are substantial. But who will take the first step to the negotiating table?


Sources and Further Reading

Rethinking Humanitarian Security, Gassmann, P., Humanitarian Exchange, 30 (2005), 32-4, http://odihpn.org/magazine/rethinking-humanitarian-security/

Safety First: A safety and security handbook for aid workers, Bickley, S. Save the Children, 2010, http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/resources/online-library/safety-first-field-security-handbook-ngo-staff-%E2%80%94-2010-edition

Risk Management and the Fortified Aid Compound: Every-Day Life in Post-Interventionary Society, Duffield, M., Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 4/4 (2010), 453-74, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17502971003700993

PhD Thesis: Understanding How the Identity of International Aid Agencies and Their Approaches to Security Are Mutually Shaped, Renouf, J.S., London School of Economics, 2011, http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/171/

Challenging Environments: Danger Resilience and the Aid Industry, Duffield, M., Security Dialogue, 43/5 (2012), 475-92, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0967010612457975

Aid in Danger: The Perils and Promise of Humanitarianism, Fast, L., University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014, http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15242.html

The Professional Humanitarian and the Downsides of Professionalisation, James, E., Disasters, 40/2 (2015), 185-206, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/disa.2016.40.issue-2/issuetoc

Saving Lives and Staying Alive: Humanitarian Security in the Age of Risk Management, Neuman, M. and Weissman, F. (eds.), Hurst Publishers, 2016, http://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/saving-lives-and-staying-alive/


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