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Published: December 19, 2022

The IRC Emergency Watchlist 2023: five implications for humanitarian security risk management

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For over a decade, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has released its annual Emergency Watchlist, highlighting the top 20 countries at risk of new or worsening humanitarian crises. In this blog, IRC’s Global Director of Safety & Security Araba Cole discusses what the Watchlist’s findings and recommendations mean for humanitarian security risk management, including meeting programmatic needs, crisis management and business continuity, and humanitarian access.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the International Rescue Committee.

For over a decade, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has released its annual Emergency Watchlist. The Watchlist is about risk and uncertainty, what may come to pass and how countries are vulnerable, making it a forward-looking and valuable perspective for those in risk management. The aim is readiness, not prediction so that the IRC can position itself ahead of future crises and send up the flare to the wider humanitarian and development community.

The theme of IRC’s 2023 Watchlist is Time to build back the Guardrails: restoring the mechanisms in place to prevent and minimise the impact of humanitarian crises on affected populations. Further,  the Watchlist identified conflict, climate change, and economic turmoil as the key drivers of humanitarian crises. Security risk management (SRM) functions within humanitarian organisations must be ready for further growth in high and extreme risk contexts as the numbers of those in need of assistance continue to rise.

Countries on the Watchlist 2023

Ranked Top 10

  1. Somalia
  2. Ethiopia
  3. Afghanistan
  4. Democratic Republic of the Congo
  5. Yemen
  6. Syria
  7. South Sudan
  8. Burkina Faso
  9. Haiti
  10. Ukraine

Unranked countries

  • Central African Republic
  • Chad
  • Lebanon
  • Mali
  • Myanmar
  • Niger
  • Nigeria
  • Pakistan
  • Sudan
  • Venezuela

1. The business is growing. Fast.

‘The number of people in humanitarian need has increased from 81 million in 2014 to 339.2 million in 2023, 90 per cent of whom are in need due to crises in Watchlist countries. The number of people forced to flee their homes has risen from under 60 million in 2014 to over 100 million in 2022.’ (3)

With more and more people in need, humanitarian programming must expand too. At the IRC, increasing the scale of response to reach more people in need is a core component of our organisational strategy. Now more than ever, SRM functions need to be ready for growth. This means more personnel, more projects, more diverse activities, and more partnerships. This is particularly difficult given already sparse budgets and challenges around engagement with organisational leaders, programmatic specialists, and risk owners. Yet boxing smarter, not harder, may be the call of the day, focusing on increasing leverage and visibility within an organisation. Building cultures to drive behavioural change, in addition to lobbying for resources and capacity, could be a way forward for SRM functions.

2. Scale achieved through access

‘Crisis-affected communities’ ability to access the services they need, and humanitarian actors’ ability to reach them, is under threat. IRC frontline staff from every region represented by the Watchlist highlighted humanitarian access constraints as a critical, often growing concern…. As a result, communities are forced to go without the services they depend on, humanitarian personnel face greater threats to their safety and the overall cost of delivering aid increases.’ (12)

The Watchlist calls attention to the humanitarian access challenges in the twenty countries, including threats to the safety of humanitarian personnel. The IRC experienced this first-hand in 2022, with the killing of a staff member in a drone strike in Ethiopia whilst carrying out a distribution. The role of SRM in safely expanding and maintaining humanitarian access remains vital, through activities such as context analysis (often as part of security risk assessment processes), actor mapping, stakeholder engagement and working closely with programme managers in the field to help them solve their security problems.

3. SRM needs to orientate around programmatic intent

The dire needs highlighted in the Watchlist, and the humanitarian responses to match, also call for rethinking how we work with programmes and how we can responsibly put the objective of meeting increasing humanitarian needs at the heart of our SRM practice. More than ever, as organisations pursue more ambitious aims, an objective-centred approach to risk (see ISO 31000) becomes important, as opposed to the event-centred approach that underlies current thinking where traditional risk matrices that can be completed with barely a word on the people, assets, and vulnerabilities of the programme.

However, this can feel at odds with the security professionals’ instinct to protect and minimise potential negative impacts on assets, personnel, operations, and reputation. Striking a balance between Duty of Care and responsible programming on the one hand, and the operations demanded by a deteriorating humanitarian situation on the other may seem challenging. Yet the conversation must shift to the responsible enabling of programmes for safety and security to remain relevant and heard by leadership.

Further, a holistic approach to risk is vital, achieved through closer collaboration with other functions as part of enterprise risk management (ERM) or simply a broader view beyond the sole focus on safety and security (e.g. staff health, a massive coup for many teams during the pandemic). The war in Ukraine illustrated that though the epicentre of the crisis had a security theme, the furthest reaches of the crisis have been economic, reputational, legal, and political in nature.

4. Crisis management and business continuity

In order to sustain the operations required to meet increasing humanitarian needs, business (programmatic) continuity rooted in effective crisis management is a key area where security functions can excel in supporting programme colleagues and leadership. According to International SOS, all but one of the countries listed in the Watchlist (Lebanon) are rated high or extreme security risk. This signals that severe and critical incidents are likely an operational reality for those operating in these contexts, especially in hard-to-reach areas. The tumultuous political transition in Afghanistan last year – Afghanistan being number three on this year’s Watchlist – illustrated that organisations with robust and practised business continuity plans were able to navigate the crisis and deliver aid at a larger scale than ever before.

Yet again, there is a need for balance: business continuity throughout a crisis can undermine crisis response and expose personnel to dangers that are not yet fully understood. Business continuity needs to be the result of and congruent with effective crisis management, not in spite of it.

5. The fifth horseman: climate change

Although conflict may be the biggest driver of the humanitarian crises listed in Watchlist 2023, the role of climate change cannot be underestimated. Climate change was identified as a key factor in the resilience people affected by crises have to future shocks. Food security was particularly impacted and acts as a key threat multiplier in operating environments.

SRM will be affected as the climate crisis accelerates and second-and third-order impacts emerge, the extent of which is still yet unknown. We’ve already seen some of the effects on programming: safety concerns, operational challenges associated with extreme weather, and security implications as scarcity and desperation become commonplace among populations.

Conclusion: security needs to be a trusted strategic partner

Although this year’s Watchlist paints a rather grim picture of protracted crises, eroded guardrails, and soaring humanitarian needs, there were glimmers of hope as to what can be achieved when those guardrails are restored. It describes a world where humanitarian organisations and responses will be defined by their ability to manage risk, pursue their objectives in the face of significant uncertainty, and prevail against all odds. As a result, security risk leaders within humanitarian organisations will remain key strategic partners for organisational managers and programme specialists as they work to restore the guardrails that prevent and mitigate crises.

About the Author

Araba is IRC’s Global Director of Safety & Security, and a security professional with a broad range of skills, interests, and experiences. These include an undergraduate degree in archaeology, an operational tour with the British Army, and security roles with international humanitarian and development organisations such as NRC, INSO, and the World Bank. She has spent her career in some of the most vibrant and dynamic places in the world, including DRC, Afghanistan, Libya and Ethiopia, and now works on creative, insightful, and delivery-orientated approaches to security risk management and operational resilience.


Image Credit: UN OCHA/Yao Chen


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