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Published: September 8, 2016

Reclaiming Humanity for Humanitarian Security Risk Management

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Christina Wille is Director of Insecurity Insight, an organisation dedicated to generating data on the impact of insecurity on people’s lives and wellbeing.


Many critics believe that humanitarianism is in crisis, and not just because security has deteriorated for aid workers.  Some argue that humanitarian space has been shrinking and attribute this to a variety of causes that include an increase in asymmetric conflicts, blurring of boundaries between military and humanitarian action, dilemmas for humanitarian agencies about when to speak out and when to withdraw, and how to manage the growing number of humanitarian actors. Over the last decade, it has often been suggested that better integration of humanitarian work into human rights or development objectives may be what is needed.

This post discusses Larissa Fast’s book ‘Aid in Danger’ and how some of the ideas in the book can be applied to humanitarian security risk management. The book discusses the origins of humanitarian insecurity and suggests a renewed emphasis on humanitarian principles as the solution. The main focus of this blog is my interpretation of Larissa’s ideas of how the principle of humanity can be better reflected in humanitarian security risk management approaches.

This post primarily argues that the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence are not a magic shield capable of protecting aid work because humanitarian agencies are actors within and not separate from the contexts in which they work. The second key point is that security incidents are not only the result of external factors affecting humanitarian agencies but that factors resulting from internal agency policy and staff behaviour also impact aid worker security. Good security risk management means taking into consideration internal factors as well as external ones.


Origins of humanitarianism in crisis: humanitarian exceptionalism and the search for the external reason

One of the primary ideas of the book, which I find particularly relevant for security risk management, is the dilemma caused by the humanitarian self-image of exceptionalism. To illustrate this self-image of exceptionalism, Larissa points out that the aid community views itself apart from the conflicts it operates in and the community it serves and believes that aid agencies should be immune from violence because they are neutral and impartial. Aid workers are seen as a special category of civilians deserving protection.

As agencies know, living this theoretical concept in the real world is difficult. Most humanitarian aid workers are local and it is difficult to draw a line between the ‘special status’ derived from the nature of their work and their personal lives within their families and communities. International staff, while often more easily perceived as separate from the communities they serve, also lead private lives outside of working hours and humanitarian work responsibilities. I believe that aid workers’ private spheres, which are often unrecognised, have implications for security risk management. These internal agency vulnerabilities are hidden and are often ignored because they are difficult to reconcile with the dominant humanitarian self-image.

The dominant conceptual framework of exceptionalism makes it difficult for the aid community to account for the full range of what causes insecurity among aid workers. The dominant public discourse describes security threats as external to the humanitarian aid worker who, in turn, is often described as targeted for ideological reasons. Several ‘terrorist’ style attacks on aid agencies support such an interpretation of new external threats that encroach on humanitarian space, take for example the attacks on UN buildings in Baghdad (2003) and Algiers (2007) as well as the attack on the World Vision office in Pakistan (2010) and many others. But as humanitarian agencies know, ‘terrorist’ style attacks are luckily the rare exception and that the constant trickle of less severe security events agencies struggle with on a daily basis have other origins.

A detrimental consequence of the external risk perception of security is that it leads to blaming rather than understanding. In the aftermath of a security incident, there is the desire to point the finger at someone for what has happened. Blame may be put on the bad intentions of the perpetrator, on the lack of a persuasive acceptance policy, inadequate security risk management, or the victims themselves. Moreover, security risk management that is only driven by a perception of external threats carries the risk of bunkerisation to protect from external threats.


Ideas for a self-critical security risk management approach inspired by the principle of humanity

What is the alternative to our dominant framework?

Larissa believes that the dominant narratives of external security concerns have eroded the relational core of humanitarianism. She argues that organisations ought to reclaim humanity as its guiding principle of action and reform by adopting relational approaches to security risk management. Good organisations accept that human failures are part of every endeavour, and therefore they seek to reduce the risk of human mistakes by focusing on learning from past failures and supporting people to achieve their best.

Larissa’s central argument is that aid delivery occurs within a complex web of relationships between aid workers themselves; aid workers and their host populations and beneficiaries; aid workers and local partners; and governments and aid agencies. Security has to be understood within these complex relationships. Good security assessments should look beyond the dominant discourse of externally driven threats and dynamics and protection through hardened security measures. Instead, it is essential to understand the importance of everyday practices, to be mindful of human fragility, organisational missteps and the constant possibility of failures in systems, a topic also discussed in a past GISF blog.

To help with the analysis, Larissa proposes a framework that recognises the dominant narratives but equally looks at often hidden narratives. These hidden factors are frequently related to personal circumstances, including behaviour, relationships, and sometimes dynamics unrelated to professional humanitarian work responsibilities. Hidden causes are also found in formally unexamined internal structures within organisations, including the responses to security incidents. The reputational cost of organisational shortcomings, such as corruption within agencies, violation of social norms, or deficiencies in organisational policies or decision-making is potentially severe. It is therefore in the agency’s interest to keep these factors hidden from public discourse. The emphasis on external factors is thus convenient.

An Embedded Framework of Violence Against Aid Workers and Aid Delivery. Source Fast (2014), p. 63

Larissa believes that humanitarian principles matter. However, not because they can provide aid workers with a magic protective shield in the form of a powerful emblem. Instead, humanitarian principles are a guide for action and organisational approaches to security risk management. Larissa suggests an approach that centres on relational principles that put humanitarianism at the centre in order for core values to define programming and management approaches.


What does this mean in practice?

In conceptual terms this means:

  • to acknowledge that aid workers are human beings with personal lives outside of their professional responsibilities and to accept the complexity this introduces to the self-image of humanitarian workers as unique civilians;
  • to recognise the human risk factor of individual behaviour and vulnerabilities, often related to coping mechanisms of life and work in the midst of hardship;
  • to be aware of how the dominant discourse shapes perceptions of the possible causes of the changing nature of violence;
  • to be accepting of the fact that humanitarian agencies are actors within and not separate from the contexts in which they work;
  • to be willing to: review power structures (in the context the agency is working in as well as within the organisation itself), and the organisation’s footprint and organisational architecture; and to assess conformity with humanitarian principles and organisational specific mission objectives;
  • to understand that programming decisions and human resource policies affect risk; whereas decisions on what programmes to run, whom to employ, how to deliver aid, and how to communicate are fundamental to the perception of the agency and thus its security.

For practical security risk management this means:

  • to have basic protective security procedures in place that follow the standards developed over the past years;
  • to develop an organisational security risk management concept that goes beyond security guidance and procedures as the central element and one that includes staff care as a central pillar. See previous GISF blogs: ‘Psychological Support and Wellbeing for Aid Workers’ and ‘The Duty to be Caring’;
  • to reassert and embody the organisation’s guiding principles into security risk management by allowing the organisational mission and principles to shape not only programmes but also security risk management;
  • to encourage individuals to reclaim ownership of their personal behaviour by dismantling the myth that their organisational affiliation provides a magical shield of protection;
  • to provide supportive trauma and stress response care to counter-balance negative coping mechanisms that may increase vulnerability;
  • to develop a security risk management culture that discusses security incidents, including near misses, in a constructive way that supports individual and organisational learning in an atmosphere that avoids blame (see GISF blog on ‘Lessons from the Aviation Industry’);
  • to succeed in weaving together security risk management, mission and programmes.



We all have a tendency to look for external blame when tragedies occur. The ‘bad guy’ out there provides a convenient focus for our anger, frustration and hurt. Larissa’s book invites us to take a more honest look at the wider and structural contributing factors to security incidents and to consider what may be hidden for good reasons from public discourse.

The book also makes the compelling argument that a greater emphasis on the principle of humanity may help humanitarianism out of a crisis. Larissa suggests that a new look at what the humanitarian principles can mean for humanitarian organisations might be the best guide to keeping humanitarianism alive and build resilient organisations that can reach and serve humanity in need.



The Duty to be Caring, Steve Ryan, GISF, 17 February 2016, https://gisfprod.wpengine.com/news/the-duty-to-be-caring/

Lessons from the Aviation Industry: What Can We Learn for Humanitarian Security Risk Management?, Christina Wille, GISF, 2 February 2016, https://gisfprod.wpengine.com/news/lessons-from-the-aviation-industry-what-can-we-learn-for-humanitarian-security-risk-management/

In the news: Psychological Support and Wellbeing for Aid Workers, Rachel Douglas and Ruth Quinn, GISF, 28 January 2016, https://gisfprod.wpengine.com/news/in-the-news-psychological-support-and-wellbeing-for-aid-workers/

Aid in Danger: The Perils and Promise of Humanitarianism, Larissa Fast, 2014.

How Baghdad attack put UN aid missions at risk, Imogen Foulkes, BBC News, 18 August 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-23717105

Humanitarianism in Crisis, Soren Jessen-Petersen, USIP, June 2011, https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/Humanitarian_Crisis.pdf

Six killed in attack on World Vision office in Pakistan, BBC News, 10 March 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/8559078.stm

Shrinking Humanitarian Space? Trends on Security and Access, Cynthia Brassard-Boudreau and Don Hubert, 24 November 2010, https://sites.tufts.edu/jha/archives/863#_edn24

Preserving Humanitarian Space, Protection and Security, Inter-Agency Standing Committee Background Document for the IASC 70th Working Group meeting, IASC, 2008, http://www.refworld.org/pdfid/48da506c2.pdf

Twin Bombs Kill Dozens in Algiers, Katrin Bennhold and Craig S. Smith, The New York Times, 12 December 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/12/world/africa/12algiers.html?_r=1