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Published: May 8, 2017

Why you will marry the wrong security advisor

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This op-ed was written by Steve Ryan. The opinions expressed in this op-ed belong to the author and do not reflect the opinions of the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF) or any employee thereof.


Three or four people are sitting around a table. At least one is frantically reading the agenda to figure out what this meeting is about and whether they should actually be there. Another person is worrying about what emails are dropping into their inbox and the other is trying to force into a projector a cable that clearly does not fit. In walks a northern hemispheric, middle-aged, short-haired, sensible shoe wearing man (so he can run in an emergency), carrying a Moleskin notebook. ‘Ah good, security is here, we can start.’

One of my concerns about security risk management in the NGO world is that we are relying far too much on ex-military and ex-police security advisors who often match the stereotype described in the anecdote above. In this blog, I contemplate the following two questions:

  1. Why do some NGOs choose ex-military or ex-police as security advisors?
  2. What should NGOs look for when considering hiring ex-military or ex-police as security advisors?

Before I continue, however, I must now confess that I am firmly in this group: male, middle-aged, in my case ex-military, European/North American, white, and keen to be involved.

Why do NGOs choose ex-military or ex-police as security advisors?

There is a perception that the technical knowledge gained during military or police service can be directly applicable to NGO security risk management. The softer skills developed through this type of service are also valued, in particular: reliability, calmness under pressure, and bringing a steady hand to a jittery senior management team or a difficult director. All of which are valid views – to a certain extent. Unfortunately, some ex-uniformed advisers retain their former military or police force mindset. Despite protestations to the contrary, this can sometimes mean that they are unable to display the flexibility and levels of empathy required in effective humanitarian security risk management.

Alain de Botton, a modern day philosopher who takes ancient thoughts and makes them relevant to today, tells us that we are unlikely to marry the right person. This is generally because we do not really understand our own psychology and we certainly do not understand our partner’s. We tire of looking for love, want to freeze for eternity the feelings we have in the early days and no one really tells us how to do this thing called life. It is the same when recruiting a security advisor for your NGO. Finding the right person for the job might take some time. You may find someone who initially seems like the perfect match for your organisation but all too often the relationship ends with, at best, the walk of shame following a passionate but futile tryst and, at worst, an acrimonious divorce.

An ineffective manager or advisor of any sort can cause problems within an organisation. However, a poor security advisor, perhaps more than most positions, can bring disharmony, cause friction, delay critical processes, insist upon the needless spending of donors’ money, inhibit operations and in extreme cases cost the lives of staff and the human beings we are ultimately trying to help.

When considering hiring a security advisor, it is important to consider a variety of issues and characteristics to ensure you are hiring the best person for the job. If your organisation is considering recruiting an ex-military or ex-police force member for the role of security advisor, I suggest you consider the following:

Soft Skills

I am not suggesting banning ex-military or ex-police from becoming security advisors for NGOs. Instead, I suggest we think deeper and ask what do they bring to the relationship? Are their experiences in large, well-armed and supported militaries with very different mindsets, beliefs, values and objectives relevant to your operations? Would their soft skills be effective within your NGO? You might want to choose someone you actually get along with because you might have to spend a lot of time with them and make some difficult decisions together.

Do they believe in humanitarian action and/or the goals of the NGO?

In addition to ex-military and ex-police individuals’ background, consider who they are now and who they could be to you? When I see a CV that has a variety of roles, civilian as well as military, commercial as well as nonprofit, I see someone who is well-rounded. When I speak to someone who is well-read, takes a broad view of the world from a variety of sources such as quality media, think tanks, institutions, seminars, talks, etc., I can see them fitting into an NGO. I would want to know what they think about the organisation but also more broadly about humanitarian interventions: how they see aid and development being used as a political tool and perhaps tellingly where the military might fit into that. Of course, everyone has to start somewhere, but can they adapt to and learn about your organisation’s culture? The most successful and respected advisors believe passionately in their NGO and the principles behind their operations. They see themselves as aid workers first and foremost, and as security advisors second.

Risk Aversion

Are the individuals you are considering recruiting willing to take risks both on behalf of their organisation and their own reputation? This may feel like an oxymoron and deeply uncomfortable but if the nature of the job is to operate in places where violence, accidents and human failure are commonplace, then it is possible that people will die, get kidnapped or be assaulted. I am not saying that security advisors should fatalistically accept this but can the potential recruits see the benefit over the risk, or will they become the embodiment of unintended impediment? Perhaps an even more terrifying prospect for someone trying to prove their worth is to take a step back and say that they are not needed in order for a project, especially a challenging one, to succeed. These risks are not the natural comfort zone of military people or former police force members.


Clearly, the background of a security advisor is vital. It is not a role that comes easily to most people. Although having previously worn a uniform is not an impediment to success in this type of position, it is equally not a guarantee of capability. So when that first date seems to be going so well and they seem to tick all the right boxes, take a moment to contemplate your future together and do not be blinded by that first rush of hormones!



Alain de Botton, Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person, The Guardian, 28 May 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/29/opinion/sunday/why-you-will-marry-the-wrong-person.html

Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person, The School of Life, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuKV2DI9-Jg


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