Load low-bandwidth site?

Published: July 5, 2024

“Change is the only constant”: reflections from Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Weeks (HNPW) 2024

By: Tolani Ubhi-Mohideen

Share this:

GISF's Communications Officer, Tolani Ubhi-Mohideen, reflects on the Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Weeks (HNPW) 2024, emphasising the event's focus on evolving security challenges and necessary adaptations in the humanitarian security risk management (SRM) sector.  

The power of community 

There is no other area of work quite like humanitarianism. Professionals in the sector cover every part of the globe. Their skill sets vary widely – from legal, financial and marketing professionals in headquarters locations, to security, medical and logistics experts in operational settings. With this huge diversity in contexts and skills, it is vital that humanitarians can come together and learn from each other. 

 One of the most powerful platforms for bringing the community together is Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Weeks (HNPW). Since 2015, HNPW has served as a pivotal platform for exchanging ideas on key humanitarian issues. As one of the largest events of its kind, HNPW gathers participants from the United Nations, NGOs, the private sector, military, academia, and beyond to discuss and resolve common challenges in humanitarian affairs. 

 This year, from April 29 to May 10, the Global Interagency Security Forum (GISF) partnered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to lead the discussions on Integrating Security Risk Management in Humanitarian Action – one of nine Areas of Common Concern for HNPW. Over the two-week event, GISF hosted six impactful sessions, with 460 participants actively engaging in crucial discussions on security risk management (SRM) within the humanitarian sector. 

Virtual session: Protect Aid Workers 

The first week of HNPW (April 29 to May 3) took place entirely online. This allowed participants from around the world to engage without the constraints of travel. The virtual format also enabled a broader range of voices from the community to be heard and fostered a rich exchange of ideas. 

 ‘Change’ was a theme that came up frequently across HNPW. One notable change, highlighted in our first session, is the worsening trend of attacks against aid workers. Despite international humanitarian law obligations and efforts within the humanitarian community, these attacks persist. In 2023, a record total of 557 aid workers were victims of a major attack, compared to 127 in 2013. 

 In response to this, the Protect Aid Workers initiative, was launched in January 2024. This new mechanism offers financial and legal assistance to aid workers affected by critical incidents such as violence, arrest, or kidnapping. The ultimate aim is to protect staff from further harm, support their recovery and improve their immediate and long-term well-being. 

 While the Protect Aid Workers initiative is a crucial step forward, it underscores the pressing need for preventative solutions to stop critical incidents from happening in the first place. Strengthening SRM practices and addressing existing gaps across the sector will be essential for protecting aid workers in increasingly volatile environments – before they suffer a critical incident. 

Virtual session: Urban Security 

It is not just the nature of humanitarian crises and conflicts that is changing, but also the context. The world has rapidly urbanised in recent decades. As a result, we are seeing an increasing movement of conflict into urban spaces.  

 Building off GISF’s latest report, we unpacked some of the unique contextual elements humanitarians encounter in urban settings and the SRM implications of these dynamics in  another key session, titled Security in Urban and Densely-populated Environments. 

There are specific nuances and challenges that come with operating humanitarian responses in urban spaces. For example, one speaker noted that in Ukraine, missile threats complicate finding safe locations for work, such as office space. A participant from Haiti emphasised how secure compounds for work can make a positive difference for the mental health of local aid workers, who experience gang violence in their daily lives. Other participants also discussed the importance of psychosocial support and contextualised self-care plans in urban conflict zones, as mental resilience is crucial for effective decision-making during crises. 

Overall, the session highlighted how the challenges of urban environments necessitate changes to current SRM approaches. There is a need to avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach, as different contexts bring different risks. So, adapting SRM practices to specific needs is vital for comprehensive strategies that support both the physical and mental health of aid workers. 

HNPW in Geneva 

In the second week of HNPW (May 6 to May 10), the GISF secretariat attended in-person at the International Conference Centre in Geneva, to deliver a fascinating programme of events. We marked our in-person presence with an impressive exhibition stand showcasing some of our popular research papers and guides, along with GISF-branded pens, session leaflets, and even chocolate! The stand was a notable upgrade from last year, and we were thrilled to see all our publications eagerly taken by attendees, leaving us with none (thankfully!) to take back to London.

Having this presence across the entire in-person week reinforced the power of community that events like HNPW can unlock. Throughout the week, the GISF team took the opportunity to attend numerous sessions across all subject areas, meet new people and organisations, and explore potential collaborations and innovations in the sector. GISF’s communications team met up with fellow professionals from the humanitarian membership network, H2H, for an insightful discussion on how to ensure the latest resources are distributed and read by the right people in the sector. Colleagues working to achieve safe and sustainable security, civil-military coordination and access to those in need, met for an exciting networking event at the UNHCR office. And several intriguing exhibition stands offered new ideas for security training, including one company which develops board games based on real-word scenarios to help players develop crisis management skills. 

 In-person sessions: State of Practice and Optimising Resources   

As well as our presence at the exhibition stand, the GISF team also helped to organise several sessions. Discussions during our State of Practice session, reiterated the theme of change, considering some of the emerging threats and risks in the security landscape and how we can adapt to these. 

 Much of the discussion revolved around cybersecurity and some of the challenges and solutions. Participants noted that staff at local NGOs often lack organisational email addresses, and resort to personal accounts, which increases security vulnerabilities.  

 The ongoing need for adaptation and collaboration in the face of new security challenges is clear. By investing in cybersecurity, leveraging available resources, and maintaining open dialogues about emerging risks, humanitarian organisations can better protect their staff and ensure the continuity of their vital work. 

 However, as this blog outlines, effectively reducing cyber risks requires more than just practical solutions – it necessitates significant funding. What organisations need to do, is advocate with donors to make cybersecurity a funding priority. This ties into a challenge explored in more depth in another GISF-led panel discussion at HNPW – on Optimising Resources 

 Panellists here suggested that effectively advocating with donors requires a shift from the current approach. Rather than framing security as a compliance requirement, it should be presented as a valuable investment. By demonstrating how investing in security can reduce long-term costs, organisations can make a stronger case for the importance of comprehensive security measures. 

 In-person session: Neutrality, Localisation and Acceptance  

Our final HNPW session of 2024 considered the principle of neutrality and its link with localisation and acceptance. While several notable points were raised, a key participant question that stuck out was whether neutrality poses a threat to organisations. Is it something that keeps staff and organisations safe, or is it linked more to professionalism? 

 The participant provided an example of aid workers operating in a civil conflict. A rebel leader, wanted by Interpol, is injured and the staff, in choosing to act neutral, treat this individual. Could a context like this create a risk for the organisation?  

 Neutrality is often seen as essential for maintaining access to affected populations and ensuring the safety of staff in conflict zones. By adhering to neutrality, organisations aim to build trust with all parties involved in a conflict. This trust can facilitate humanitarian access and provide a measure of safety for aid workers. However, neutrality can also present significant risks. In volatile environments, perceived associations with any party could potentially endanger the organisation and its staff.  

 While neutrality is a cornerstone of humanitarian principles, this session highlighted that its application requires careful consideration of the local context and potential security implications.  

 “Change is the only constant”: what is the future for HNPW and the humanitarian sector? 

There is an old saying that “change is the only constant”. This idea certainly resonated throughout the HNPW sessions, highlighting the evolving security challenges and necessary adaptations in the humanitarian SRM sector.  

 But as we navigate these contextual changes, it’s also crucial to reflect on our own practices at major events like HNPW and how we can change. Currently, GISF’s sessions, like many others at HNPW, were only offered in English, limiting participation for many. Likewise, while the virtual week enabled participants from around the world to join, the in-person week in Geneva was much less accessible for those outside Europe.  

 HNPW is an important event for the humanitarian sector – one that truly shows the powerful changes that can come when we bring our community together. But one change we need to think more about is how our community can become more inclusive. To truly embrace change, we must make our resources more accessible by providing translations and multilingual support. This is something GISF is already working on. But we must also explore options for allowing more participants from outside Europe to benefit from the networks and conversations that flourish at in-person events. 

 Like all areas of the humanitarian sector, HNPW and GISF will continue to evolve and change. By putting an inclusive approach at the heart of this change, we can ensure that a broader audience can contribute to and benefit from these critical discussions, ultimately enhancing our collective efforts to protect and support aid workers worldwide.  

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


About the author 

 Tolani Ubhi-Mohideen joined the GISF Secretariat in May 2023, after completing her undergraduate degree in International Relations and her MSc in Politics of Conflict, Rights and Justice at SOAS University. In her final dissertation, she explored the conceptual inadequacy of Islamophobia as an analytical concept. At GISF, she serves as Communications Officer, producing website, social media, newsletter content and much more – to help ensure the best SRM research and guidance reaches the audiences that need them. 


HNPW & GISF | Complete session summaries, resources and recordings 2024

Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Weeks (HNPW) Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Weeks (HNPW) is the annual event of the Leading Edge Programme (LEP).The largest event of its kind, HNPW provides a unique forum for humanitarian networks and partnerships to meet and address key humanitarian issues. Every year, HNPW brings together more than…

Saving lives by enhancing humanitarian logos

Once a symbol of safety, humanitarian logos are now less effective at protecting workers in conflict zones. To address this, Ebe Brons, founder and CEO of the Centre for Safety and Development (CSD), proposes a unified logo design to enhance recognition and reduce the risk of attacks.

Global 2024

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

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.

Europe, Global 2024