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Published: August 18, 2023

World Humanitarian Day 2023: two decades on, what has changed?

By: Tolani Ubhi-Mohideen

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World Humanitarian Day commemorates the devastating 2003 Canal Hotel bombing, an event that acts as a poignant reminder of the dedication and commitment shown by humanitarian organisations and their staff . GISF's Tolani Ubhi-Mohideen spoke to our members to see what has changed within the humanitarian sector two decades on from the tragic incident.

World Humanitarian Day is held on 19 August each year, commemorating the devastating 2003 Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad, Iraq. This tragic event serves as a stark reminder of the risks faced by humanitarians. Two decades later, we are asking how approaches to security risk management (SRM) in the humanitarian sector have evolved since the incident. We had the privilege of talking to several GISF members to shed light on the progress made in mitigating risks and ensuring safe access for humanitarian operations. 

World Humanitarian Day celebrates the unwavering commitment of humanitarian organisations and their staff. This blog offers a unique opportunity for those responsible for the security of humanitarians to reflect on their journey and to inspire further advancements in safeguarding those who support communities affected by crises. 

Looking back on the past 20 years since the Canal Hotel bombing, how has the overall approach to security risk management within the humanitarian community evolved? 

Major events such as the Canal Hotel bombing can often act as catalysts for change, spurring action and inciting progress. By reflecting on the evolution of SRM since this tragic event, we can gain valuable insights into how organisations have adapted to ensure greater safety and well-being for their staff. Over the past 20 years, discussions surrounding SRM have shifted to encompass several significant topics that continue to shape the sector’s landscape. Localisation, inclusivity, and duty of care, for example, have emerged as prominent themes, encouraging thoughtful discussions on security strategies.  

Tom van Herwijnen, Global Security & Safeguarding Manager for Christian Blind Mission (CBM), highlights significant technological advancements over the past two decades. There is now an increased awareness and recognition of the inherent risks faced by aid workers in volatile environments and a growing emphasis on providing specialised security training. Much of this training is now accessible online, with security staff from across the globe able to access virtual courses from any location. Tom notes, however, that while some training has shifted to online platforms, ‘there … will never be a viable alternative for face-to-face training’. Despite technological advancements, he believes that there is still limited technology that truly helps aid workers stay safe in dangerous contexts. 

The Canal Hotel bombing catalysed a transformation in the management and implementation of security within the humanitarian community. According to Daniel Elliot, Global Security Advisor for CAFOD, this tragedy led to calls for improved oversight and higher security standards across the sector, prompting the creation of the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS). UNDSS, founded in 2005, aims to bolster security globally and establish a unified approach to policy, coordination, communications, compliance, and threat assessment. 

According to Tom, increased NGO access to shared security information through organisations like UNDSS have provided aid workers with valuable resources to better understand and prepare for the risks they may encounter. Similarly, initiatives like ‘Saving Lives Together‘ have enhanced the ability of organisations to make informed decisions based on shared information and knowledge. 

While UNDSS has helped improve humanitarian security, for Raymond Bonniwell, Vice President of Safety and Security at Relief International, ‘its politicisation and leisurely response to changes in the humanitarian sector has hampered its effectiveness’.  Raymond notes, however, that there has been ‘tremendous change within the NGO community. We have successfully implemented groundbreaking strategies around risk management and, in many respects, NGO security now sets the standard in training, analysis, risk management, and policy guidance for other industries’.   

Theo Alexopoulos, Senior Advisor for Global Safety and Security at the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), reminds us that despite the vibrancy of the changes constantly redefining the contexts in which we work, ‘our duty of care remains at the heart of what we do’.

In what ways have the security threats and risks faced by humanitarian organisations transformed since the Canal Hotel bombing? 

The security landscape is dynamic and constantly evolving. Over the past two decades, significant shifts in geopolitical, social, and technological realms have brought forth new and complex challenges. Notable transformations in recent years include the growing prominence of digital security threats, the rise of non-state actors, urban warfare, and climate change. As a result, the risks faced by humanitarian organisations today are not the same as they were 20 years ago.  By exploring how the threats to aid worker security have changed over the past two decades, we can understand the emerging challenges to safe and sustainable staff and programmes.  

According to Raymond, the bombing revealed that humanitarians could no longer rely on the principle of neutrality for protection; aid organisations were increasingly seen as extensions of a state’s foreign policy and could therefore be directly targeted during a conflict. Additionally, the rise of non-state actors within the broader geopolitical context has further threatened the safety and security of aid workers. Organisations such as Al-Qaeda have viewed humanitarians ‘not just as viable targets but perceived valid enemies and traitors that should be attacked’.    

Theo highlights the myriad challenges, from AI and urban warfare, to safeguarding and cyber threats, that have also emerged over the past two decades. These complexities have necessitated a multidimensional response, including analytical approaches, legal considerations, technological advancements, and more. As the landscape has grown more intricate, organisations have grappled with factors like access, personal data protection, climate change, and new forms of conflict that directly impact civilians. 

Tom underscores that amidst global events like the Covid-19 pandemic, the Ukraine crisis, and inflation, budget pressures are forcing NGOs to compromise on humanitarian safety. Moreover, the competitive proposal process required to win funding forces many NGOs to cut resources for safety and security to make their proposal more appealing to donors. Although donors are increasingly open to investing in humanitarian security, the competitive nature of the proposal process encourages cost-cutting, especially in the security of staff and operations.

Do you think World Humanitarian Day is effective in celebrating the efforts of aid workers and drawing attention to the need to improve their security? 

It is not enough for NGO security staff to implement effective security processes. Security cannot operate within a silo and requires buy-in from across the humanitarian sector, from the staff working with communities, to senior leadership teams, to donors who influence how humanitarian funds are spent. We asked GISF’s members about the broader implications of World Humanitarian Day for SRM, both as a commemoration of past events and as a catalyst for ongoing advancements in protecting NGO staff. 

World Humanitarian Day serves a dual purpose, eliciting a range of perspectives within the humanitarian community. Sabina Brimson, Senior Security Adviser for the Danish Red Cross (DRC), highlights that for her, the day is more about celebrating the positive work of humanitarians rather than emphasising security concerns threatening the sector.  

However, Raymond believes World Humanitarian Day provides an opportunity for deep reflection on how to make the sector safer. Having directly responded to the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad, he believes the day provides an opportunity to honour the lives lost and enact changes that might prevent future tragedies. Although, he does have concerns ‘that the meaning of the day has become watered down over the years with greater focus on the feel-good aspects of humanitarian response rather than remembering those we lost in 2003 and those we have lost every year since’.   

What more would you like to see the humanitarian community doing to keep staff and programmes safe? 

While significant progress has been made to improve and professionalise SRM, efforts to mitigate risks and ensure safe access to crisis-affected populations are ongoing. By looking forward, we explore different ways the humanitarian community can further enhance the safety and well-being of its staff and programmes. Every member of the humanitarian community has a role to play here, not just those responsible for security. 

When considering the safety and security of humanitarian staff and programmes, Raymond emphasises that this issue requires more than just financial resources. While acknowledging the need for adequate funding, he underscores the importance of fostering a culture of safety and security within organisations. Raymond points out the importance of investing in each other, promoting staff well-being, and building organisational cultures that prioritise people as much as funding. He challenges the humanitarian community to move beyond eloquent speeches about duty of care and instead demonstrate commitment through concrete budget allocations dedicated to staff safety, security, and well-being.  

Sabina’s perspective centres on reinvigorating Saving Lives Together (SLT) and emphasising international humanitarian law (IHL) and neutrality to protect aid workers. She advocates for better education not only at the public level but also within higher levels of decision-making. She also stresses the importance of de-politicising humanitarian aid. 

Theo notes that effective leadership can greatly influence outcomes during life-threatening events. He encourages continuous growth and development of personal leadership skills to navigate the complexities of modern humanitarian work. He suggests a focus on adaptive leadership styles and offers three guiding questions for leaders to consider: What does the situation demand of me as a leader? What is demanded of my team? What does each person need to get the job done?  


Image credits: Christian Aid


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