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3. Establishing a collaboration mechanism

Regardless of the many benefits of security collaboration, it does not happen automatically; it is a challenge to initiate and will be ineffective if not developed through careful assessment and planning of its expected scope, structure and activities.

3.1 Assessing need

Coordination or collaboration mechanisms tend to proliferate during emergencies, especially large-scale humanitarian responses. They are time-consuming for organisations to engage with and can require significant resources, so there needs to be a clear added value in establishing additional mechanisms. However, if well run, they can significantly improve the response.                                                 

When looking to establish an NGO security mechanism, careful consideration must be given to why it is needed, and which collaboration type or model will best meet the security needs of the different NGOs in that specific context.

Key questions

  • Who are the primary stakeholders – L/NNGOs, INGOs, or all NGOs, and what implications might this have for the type of security mechanism established?
  • How many NGOs have full-time security staff or security-specific focal points, and will non-security staff be involved?
  • What coordination or information sharing mechanisms already exist, and what are the language requirements for meetings and security information?
  • What are the main security information and support needs of the NGOs involved?
  • How sensitive is discussing and sharing information on security within the context, and how does this impact the visibility of the security mechanism?
  • Which organisations have the capacity to lead and/or support the initiative?
  • What potential resources and funding are available to support a security collaboration mechanism?

It is important to note that security information and support needs may evolve over time, and the collaboration mechanism will need to adapt to these changes. For example, what starts as a small group of NGO security staff forming a network to exchange security information may in time become a security forum with a full-time security coordinator.

Alternatively, due to a significant deterioration in the security situation, increasing NGO demand and the availability of donor funding, NGOs may request INSO to establish a stand-alone platform to expand security support services to all NGOs operating in different areas of the country.

When identifying and developing a suitable collaborative initiative, it is important to consider scope for expansion and growth, as well as down-scaling, and identify indicators that may trigger such changes. This flexibility will enable the mechanism to continue to meet the adapting needs of NGOs involved, and to respond to changes in the security situation.

Determining factors

  • Level of insecurity – in insecure environments, where aid workers are frequently targeted, NGOs will be looking for more comprehensive security information and support, provided by a stand-alone mechanism, with dedicated staffing.
  • Number of NGOs – the more NGOs operating in a given environment, the greater the demand on the security services provided by the mechanism, which has implications for the structure and capacity required.
  • Geographical coverage – where NGO operations are widespread then additional sub-national networks or forums may be required to support NGOs working in different areas of the country.
  • Existing coordination structures – lack of, or frustrations with, existing coordination structures will influence demand for a separate security-focused mechanism. However, given strong overlap with NGO fora, it is often useful for such security networks or forums to be linked to existing mechanisms.
  • Attitude of authorities – in some contexts, sensitivities or suspicion associated with security issues, and interference by authorities, may force NGOs to adopt a less formalised mechanism or limit certain activities.
  • Resources and funding – larger mechanisms with staffing require significant resources. If funding is limited and NGOs are unable to contribute sufficiently themselves, a less resource-intensive mechanism, such as a security network, may be required.

3.2 Defining scope, activities and support

With any security collaboration mechanism, it is essential to clearly identify its purpose, what it aims to achieve, and therefore what activities and support it should provide and, importantly, what limitations it may have. For example, is the primary focus to improve security incident reporting between organisations, or to provide a platform for NGOs to discuss the security situation and how each is responding, or is it to provide technical security support to organisations with less security risk management capacity?

Initiatives often lack buy-in and support if NGOs feel that they have not been sufficiently consulted when defining scope and activities, or have little or no say in the development of the initiatives. From the outset, it is important to solicit widespread participation in defining the aims and objectives of any initiative.

NGO security mechanisms can provide a wide range of support services. Some of the most common activities include:

  • Convening security meetings/briefings.
  • Issuing security alerts/threat warnings and advisories.
  • Providing regular security reports.
  • Preparing analysis of incident trends or specific security challenges.
  • Liaison with UNDSS and other security actors (national security forces, including police and military, international military forces, etc).
  • Facilitating access to security training.
  • Providing support during critical incidents.

The full extent of services a security network or forum provides to its members should be documented within its Terms of Reference/Charter, or in a separate Scope of Services document, translated and widely disseminated, to ensure shared understanding of what the network or forum does and does not do.

It is important to clearly articulate the advisory nature of the information and support provided. The primary objective is to support informed decision-making through shared information, not to replace the internal security management systems of the participating NGOs. Security risk management and the duty of care to staff remains the sole responsibility of individual NGOs.

3.3 Membership and engagement

Ultimately, collaboration mechanisms are only as good as the organisations involved and the level to which they engage. During the early days of any new security mechanism, membership is likely to be small, and mostly confined to a few proactive security staff. However, as the mechanism matures, interest will increase, and with it a need for clear membership criteria. In some contexts, there may be good reasons for limiting membership, but a lack of transparency on who is involved and why creates a risk of the mechanism being accused of being elitist or discriminatory.

The individuals involved, and the profile and mandate of the different organisations who participate, will have a significant effect on the level of engagement, and ultimately the level of trust. A frequent criticism of NGO security networks, especially smaller informal groups, is that they are only accessible to security staff from the larger INGOs.

Efforts to ensure ‘trust’ relationships are maintained between security staff can make L/NNGOs, or smaller INGOs feel excluded, or result in the establishment of various sub-groups based on the size, type, or operational focus of organisations. Equally, if individuals or organisations involved in a network are perceived to have close links to the authorities or specific security actors, or adopt a strong advocacy position which is at odds with the position adopted by other members, then this will likely limit what other members vocalise or share within the network.

Although a large membership can affect information sharing and engagement dynamics, language and perceived priorities are also significant challenges to broader participation. However, the importance of L/NNGO participation in security networks and forums cannot be underestimated.

Security is all about trust, so not only does INGO-L/NNGO security collaboration provide an opportunity for trust building and networking, but sensitive security information is also often initially shared through L/NNGOs, with their strong relationships with local communities, religious leaders, and local volunteers. It is crucial that security collaboration mechanisms not only encourage L/NNGOs to participate, but also empower them to take greater leadership roles in the network or forum.

Strong engagement by all NGO members is not easy to attain. It is common to have a range of engagement levels and many NGOs may choose to be passive members. This is not necessarily a negative, as their presence alone may be equally important in terms of collaboration. It is important to note that even those less engaged NGOs can still value their membership and the services the network or forum provides.

Fostering member engagement

  • Create a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere – all member organisations should have an equal ‘voice’, regardless of their size, status, or focus.
  • Identify membership benefits and responsibilities – outline the network or forum’s value to them as well as their responsibility and how they can participate.
  • Provide training – organising an interagency security training or workshop will often stimulate interest in the security network or forum and strengthen the participation of members.
  • Ensure information and discussions are relevant for diverse membership – provide content and engagement methods that are relevant and accessible to all members.
  • Establish clear and transparent decision-making processes – each member should feel they can influence activities and that decisions represent the majority of the membership.
  • Define information and data protection policies – members should be able to trust how information and data will be shared and used.
  • Create opportunities for members to participate in governance roles – regardless of size, all member organisations should be able to take active roles in the network or forum.
  • Record and monitor engagement levels – reach out directly to inactive members to explore reasons for not engaging, and identify any support requirements that may increase their engagement.
  • Establish feedback mechanism – provide members with the ability to raise questions or express grievances about the mechanism, its governance, or the support it provides, including anonymously, if required.

Adapted from ICVA NGO Fora Member Engagement Guide, 2019

3.4 Governance, structure and responsibilities

Good governance is an essential component of any collaboration mechanism, regardless of its size and structure. An effective structure with transparent roles and responsibilities, and processes provides the foundation for attracting and retaining NGO support, and for ensuring the mechanism meets its objectives.

The most appropriate structure will be determined by the type of security collaboration mechanism established, and the activities and services it provides. However, it is important the structure enhances rather than hinders the functioning of the mechanism and it must be adaptable to changes in context, membership, and funding.

NGO security mechanisms often start out as informal security groups and then adopt more formal measures as the number of members and range of activities increases.

Most security networks have a chair or lead who coordinates the activities of the network, organising meetings and events. Network chairs/leads are normally full-time NGO security staff, who support the network on a part-time basis. Therefore, to limit the burden of the role, it is advisable to appoint co-chairs/leads to help share tasks and to rotate these roles amongst the participating organisations. Sharing leadership roles often produces stronger engagement and better collaboration and helps ensure a network’s sustainability despite staff turnover.

NGO security forums, the largest NGO-managed security mechanisms, normally have a full-time representative or coordinator, supported by a Steering Committee or Advisory Board.

The degree to which NGOs are involved in the mechanism’s governance is dependent on the governance structure put in place. For example, a Steering Committee would be responsible for setting the mechanism’s strategic direction and overall aims and objectives and maintains accountability to members.

Steering Committees usually nominate a Chair to ensure the Steering Committee functions properly and to provide direct support and advise the forum’s Coordinator. Alternatively, an Advisory Board is a more informal group which has fewer responsibilities but can be consulted to ensure that the mechanism continues to meet the needs of the NGOs. Advisory Boards do not determine how a mechanism should be run or what services it provides; that responsibility rests with the security mechanism’s internal management or its host organisation.

Essential documents

  • Terms of Reference (ToR)/Charter – defines the mechanism’s structure, components, membership criteria, and the scope of services. Document should also outline responsibilities and obligations for member organisations.
  • Information Sharing Protocol – specifies the policy and procedures in relation to the sharing of information and data within the network or forum.
  • Steering Committee ToR – establishes the remit, roles, and responsibilities of the governing body and the process for selection.
  • Host Organisation Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) – clarifies respective roles, responsibilities, and decision-making authority between the host organisation, the forum‘s Coordinator/Secretariat and the Steering Committee with respect to human resources, financial management, donor relations, and operational and administration support.
  • Security Coordinator/Advisor Job Description – describes the general tasks, responsibilities, and reporting lines of the forum’s Security Coordinator/Advisor.

If the collaboration mechanism has more than one full-time staff member, then these employees would form a Secretariat. The Secretariat should be relatively autonomous and manage activities itself, with overall guidance and support provided by the Steering Committee.

The forum’s Coordinator or Secretariat would typically be hosted by one of the member organisations, as establishing a separate legally independent organisation can be difficult, time-consuming, costly, and in many cases, unnecessary. The host organisation is responsible for contracting staff and holding any donor contracts therefore assumes the financial and legal risk.