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Achieving Safe Operations through Acceptance: challenges and opportunities for security risk management

Acceptance is one of the three pillars of humanitarian organisations’ security risk management (SRM) strategies to ensure both access to populations affected by conflict and disaster and the safety of their staff and programmes. Acceptance is ‘founded on effective relationships and cultivating and maintaining consent from beneficiaries, local authorities, belligerents and other stakeholders. This, in turn, is a means of reducing or removing potential threats to access vulnerable populations and undertake programme activities’. Beyond its SRM function, acceptance encourages the establishment and maintenance of genuine relationships with affected communities and other stakeholders while upholding humanitarian principles such as humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence. Operating with acceptance both distinguishes humanitarians from other actors in conflict settings, such as military forces or the private sector, and can provide the legitimacy and support necessary for effective programming.

A changing context for acceptance

As many organisations know all too well, however, acceptance is not a panacea. The targeting of aid workers, enduring obstacles to humanitarian access and debates around the legitimacy, independence, and effectiveness of aid actors, continue to challenge humanitarian organisations’ acceptance. From the outright targeting by armed groups, impediments to aid delivery, deliberate attacks or hostility shown by host governments to criticisms on the neocolonial nature of aid operations, humanitarian organisations continue to struggle to be accepted by different stakeholders. Reflecting on the professionalisation of the SRM sector, debates and research projects investigating acceptance have multiplied over the past two decades. The last comprehensive report to conceptualise and analyse acceptance in a holistic way was published ten years ago. The project focused on answering key questions, including how to gain and maintain acceptance, measure it, and determine its effectiveness. Since then, more recent works have discussed the limits of acceptance in highly insecure environments, the difficulty of managing threats related to mis/disinformation, as well as the obstacles to developing and implementing acceptance approaches to SRM.

Considering the crucial role acceptance plays in the humanitarian sector, whether for local or international NGOs or for the Red Cross and UN agencies, it is necessary to continue exploring how humanitarian organisations seek acceptance and succeed or fail to implement acceptance strategies, as well as how the context generates new conditions and challenges. Among these continually evolving conditions, we highlight the increased use of social media and digital technology, the growth of mis- and disinformation, the large number of programmes delivered in urban environments, the push to ‘localise’ and rethink aid, conspicuous calls to target humanitarians, and the growing use of remote management in violent environments and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Each of these present challenges for an acceptance approach, be it how to seek acceptance in an online environment, how threats in the digital world affect acceptance in the physical world, analysing the specific provocations of a violent urban environment or the effects of varying profiles of diverse staff and organisations. As a result, current acceptance models may no longer be fit-for-purpose and may need to be updated or adapted to consider such evolutions.

Revisiting opportunities and challenges for acceptance

The current context raises questions about degrees and practices of acceptance: are humanitarian organisations less accepted today, and have they always been more tolerated than accepted? Is it wishful thinking to seek acceptance in highly insecure contexts and from groups who are radically opposed to humanitarian principles? When, if ever, should acceptance be abandoned as an SRM approach? Moreover, many questions remain about the practicalities of implementing acceptance. What systems, organisational cultures and internal functioning enable organisations to implement successful acceptance strategies? Are humanitarian organisations changing the way they measure and approach acceptance considering the current challenges, and if so, to what end?

Much has changed in the last decade. Humanitarian organisations now seem to increasingly refer to and reflect on achieving ‘tolerance’ instead of acceptance, referring to the more challenging humanitarian contexts, such as Syria, Somalia, or Afghanistan, to illustrate the potential harms that result from misconstruing the context or the consequences of achieving tolerance in lieu of acceptance. This change in perspective reflects the professionalisation of the SRM sector, demonstrating a decisive shift away from a ‘passive acceptance’ that assumed acceptance by virtue of the programmes and services organisations provided. It also reflects the growing integration of acceptance into SRM, seeing acceptance practices as complementing the risk mitigation activities of protection and deterrence in the most insecure environments.  Equally, such perspectives raise questions about whether more instrumental perspectives about acceptance equate it to its basic SRM function rather than its larger ambition of building genuine relationships and looking for common ground with affected communities and other stakeholders.

‘Achieving Safe Operations through Acceptance’

A series of articles that GISF will release over the coming weeks aims to explore key aspects and to prompt further reflection based on the ever-changing contexts in which humanitarians work. The articles were submitted in response to a call for papers released in March 2021 and are part of the publication ‘Achieving Safe Operations through Acceptance: challenges and opportunities for security risk management’. In commissioning articles, GISF had three goals:

  1. To further demystify the practices and policies of acceptance as an SRM strategy. This means having a clearer understanding of how different organisations ‘do’ acceptance in practice.
  2. To explore current challenges related to acceptance in the aid sector and analyse how changes in the aid environment or aid organisations affect this acceptance.
  3. To spark debates and raise awareness about the relevance of acceptance for security risk management and programming. Developing and implementing effective acceptance strategies requires collaboration across humanitarian organisations, which GISF and this publication seeks to support this dialogue.

The articles that comprise this publication present diverging, and in some cases contradictory, viewpoints. Depending on their specific experiences, the article authors provide different interpretations of why acceptance sometimes fails and recommendations and strategies for addressing current challenges. They represent a diversity of perspectives and, we hope, help to facilitate dialogue on these important issues and implicitly acknowledge that there is neither a single way to view nor to ‘do’ acceptance.

We will be releasing some articles from the publication every two weeks and in December, we will publish the complete set of articles in a single publication. In the meantime, we encourage you to read the first three articles in the series. Keep an eye open for the next ones to follow!

  1. Debunkerising Acceptance: a view from the ICRC by Fiona Terry, Jean-Phillipe Kiehl, Robert Whelan and Tamás Szenderák
  2. Promoting a Blended Risk Management Approach: the place of programming and diversity within a security risk management strategy by Chris Williams, Penelope Kinch and Lyndall Herman
  3. Choice Architecture and Organisational SRM Buy-in by Araba Cole and Panagiotis Olympiou
  4. Acceptance under Stress: old recipes for new problems by Pascal Daudin
  5. Digital Risk: how new technologies impact acceptance and raise new challenges for NGOs by Ziad Al Achkar
  6. Counter-Terrorism Legislation: a limiting factor in the gaining and implementing of acceptance by Lena Schellhammer
  7. Measuring and Improving Acceptance: Action Contre La Faim’s experience and perspectives by Regis Billaudel 


Communications Technology and Humanitarian Delivery: Challenges and opportunities for security risk management

Twenty one authors have contributed to this publication analysing how communications technology is changing the operational environment, the ways in which communications technology is creating new opportunities for humanitarian agencies to respond to emergencies, and the impact that new programmes have on how we manage security.

Community Acceptance: a cornerstone of humanitarian security risk management

What does it mean for NGOs to use an acceptance security strategy? And how can you measure acceptance levels in practice? In this blog, safety and security professional Jessica Skelly shares her perspective on why NGOs should focus more on building bridges through acceptance, instead of relying on walls.

Global 2021