A closer look at acceptance
by June 2010

Repeated bombings and attacks in Afghanistan, carjackings in Sudan and persistent insecurity in Somalia and elsewhere demonstrate the challenges of providing security for humanitarian aid workers. The statistics point to higher numbers of targeted attacks against aid workers between 2006 and 2008, driven largely by insecurity in Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan.[1] This growing insecurity has prompted media articles and a persistent and increasingly prevalent discourse among humanitarian organisations that challenges the efficacy of ‘acceptance’ as a legitimate, effective approach to security management. For example, a conference in April 2010 discussed the ‘limits and possibilities’ and the ‘(perceived) end’ of the acceptance approach in light of the increase in security incidents and the perception that aid is part of a Western agenda.[2]

Some practitioners argue that humanitarian agencies place too much faith in acceptance without fully acknowledging changes in the security environment that undermine its effectiveness. For example, kidnappings for extortion or remuneration reflect a different environment than those motivated for political reasons and therefore deserve a security management approach tailored to that unique threat environment.[3] Others share anecdotes about NGOs implementing relief and development projects that are targeted for hostile action despite the apparent acceptance by local communities. But is it really the acceptance approach that has failed as the basis of sound security management, or might there be another explanation behind this phenomenon?


The death of acceptance?

Even as many question the efficacy of acceptance in the most violent places, others, like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Save the Children, are resolutely and deliberately using an acceptance approach as a core element of their security management strategy. We argue that insufficient evidence exists either to support or refute the effectiveness of acceptance. With apologies to Mark Twain, reports of the death of acceptance are an exaggeration.[4] Instead, the humanitarian community needs a clearer understanding and a more consistent application of the acceptance approach, and a systematic assessment of its effectiveness in different contexts in order to evaluate whether and under what circumstances the acceptance approach works. While aid workers may believe that acceptance-based strategies make them most secure, no corresponding evidence exists on whether or to what degree acceptance works in practice.[5]

The ICRC is the recognised originator of the concept of acceptance, tying its security approach to the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence. Its security approach relies on gaining consent from stakeholders in an operational area, including (especially) those who might obstruct access to or commit acts of aggression against beneficiaries and field workers. Thus, the ICRC’s acceptance is linked to its ability to inform and educate local stakeholders about its mission and programmes, and to its negotiations for access to war-affected populations. Good Practice Review 8 (Operational Security Management in Violent Environments, published in 2000 and currently being revised) outlined acceptance in more detail, highlighting the importance of analysing context and conflict dynamics, cultivating relationships with multiple stakeholders, and understanding the perceptions of local populations. Since then, relief and development NGOs have latched on to acceptance, largely because it is most consistent with their values, missions and mandates. Most NGOs today claim acceptance as a foundation of their security strategy. How each NGO implements acceptance, however, differs substantially. Many take a ‘passive’ approach, assuming that doing good programming will win the consent of the local population and acceptance will automatically follow. Others take a more ‘active’ approach, deliberately working to gain and sustain consent from all stakeholders. The continuum of implementation, from passive to active, is evidence of the diverse ways in which NGOs apply acceptance.

This diversity in implementation suggests that the acceptance approach remains inadequately understood in conceptual and operational terms. For example, a recent review of security policies reveals that many organisations understand and implement only part of the original acceptance concept.[6] The sections of the acceptance framework, as articulated in GPR8, that organisations most commonly incorporate in their own descriptions of acceptance include broad-based relationships (in particular developing relationships with multiple authorities and power-brokers), implicit messages through appearance and behaviour (translated by many organisations into statements about the importance of cultivating a positive ‘image’ for the organisation) and effective programming. The review found that many organisations do not distinguish between passive acceptance, which assumes that good, community-based programming will automatically lead to acceptance, and active acceptance, which is based on establishing and consistently maintaining consent from all stakeholders. Much of GPR8’s guidance on issues such as interpersonal relations and negotiating styles, the nuances of appropriate socialising and diplomacy, the messages and images conveyed through formal and informal meetings and real or perceived divisions among staff are typically not emphasised as part of the acceptance approach. While these diplomatic and negotiation skills are conceived of as integral to the ‘humanitarian craft’ that facilitates access to vulnerable populations, they are rarely directly linked to the skill sets needed to address security concerns through the acceptance approach.


The importance of local perceptions

A persistent and thorny problem with an acceptance approach is the diversity of missions, mandates and values among humanitarian agencies. Aid agencies rarely represent themselves with any unity of mission at municipal, regional or central government levels, largely due to competition among organisations, differences in programme objectives and design or organisational cultures and individual personalities and national/ethnic backgrounds. The fact that humanitarian agencies themselves often share the aid landscape with other actors – private-sector, religious and increasingly military – poses further challenges for acceptance as an approach to security. Local stakeholders often perceive these various entities as more-or-less indistinguishable. Several research initiatives have documented how local communities perceive relief and development actors, including the HA2015 project of the Feinstein International Center,[7] CDA Collaborative Learning Project’s Listening Project and MSF-Switzerland’s study of local perceptions of MSF. Their conclusions suggest the need for more attention to local perceptions and their effect on security.

While an individual organisation may well have established an effective acceptance-based approach, this hard-won acceptance can be undone by the behaviour, affiliation or other attributes of another, unrelated organisation. Thus, in places like Afghanistan and Chad, where military and civilian actors work in close proximity, the actions of non-humanitarian organisations can undermine the safety and security of humanitarians. As a case in point, after seeing its access progressively diminish the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan chose to reassert its distinct mission as a means of renegotiating consent from belligerent factions and distinguishing itself as a unique entity among humanitarian actors. In the absence of unanimity of purpose and a disciplined commitment to humanitarian principles, individual NGOs are left with the same dilemma, but without the benefit of the ICRC’s unique standing. 

In our view, 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 in order to access vulnerable populations and undertake programme activities. Gaining acceptance among stakeholders is directly related to an agency’s mission and positive stakeholder perceptions of the agency’s image. Local perceptions are influenced by project design and accountability, adherence to humanitarian principles, staff behaviour that is respectful of cultural norms and whether the agency understands the dynamics among various power-brokers. Gaining consent depends not on how an NGO sees itself, but on how external actors perceive the NGO. Many organisations have established codes of behaviour for their staff that are linked to general ethical standards (e.g., avoiding conflicts of interest) or to an organisation’s mission and principles.[8] Although these codes and standards influence how an organisation is perceived, how many of these are understood in light of acceptance or integrated into a security strategy? The values and principles an NGO espouses are not always readily evident to external stakeholders, and should be explicitly promoted and contextualised through outreach and negotiation.

Acceptance is not just about gaining the consent and support of the local community; instead, it is as much about gaining consent and access from those who may want to obstruct the organisation or harm its personnel. In this way, the diplomatic and negotiating skills that are part and parcel of the humanitarian craft are critical to a successful acceptance approach. While often perceived as valuable to beneficiaries, the actions of NGOs may at the same time undermine local power-brokers, commercial interests or those that seek instability to advance a political agenda. Any of these actors may target an organisation that they see as undermining their interests; they are therefore key stakeholders from whom at least tacit consent is required. The inability of NGOs to gain safe access to affected populations from key belligerents in Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan testifies to this challenge.

Much of the recent critique of the acceptance approach seems to assume that a security management strategy that is neither deterrence-based nor protection-based by default implies an acceptance-based approach. We suggest that, in many cases, what is being critiqued is not the acceptance approach per se, but overall substandard security management. While many NGOs may claim to use acceptance as a primary means of improving the security of their staff, it is not at all clear how they define acceptance, how they implement it in practice, whether or not it is effective, or the circumstances under which it is, or is not, effective. Many questions still surround our understanding of acceptance and its effective application. What does successful acceptance look like? What are its necessary constituent parts? How do we assess whether and under what conditions the acceptance approach is most effective? What factors contribute to achieving acceptance? The lack of a widely accepted conceptual and operational understanding of acceptance hampers not only its implementation but also its testability. Further consideration of what acceptance means, how this approach is implemented in the field and its level of impact on the security of national and international staff is timely and crucial in light of the current debate about how best to ensure the safety and security of aid workers and the requisite competencies, skills and training that aid workers require. Before the obituary on acceptance is definitively written, we need a better understanding of the acceptance concept, how it is applied and its effectiveness in secure and insecure contexts.


Larissa Fast is Assistant Professor at the Kroc Institute, University of Notre Dame. Michael O’Neill is Senior Director, Global Safety and Security at Save the Children.


[1] Abby Stoddard, Adele Harmer and Victoria DiDomenico, Providing Aid in Insecure Environments: 2009 Update, HPG Policy Brief 34 (London: ODI, 2009).

[2] The 2010 NGO Security Conference is sponsored by the Centre for Safety and Development. See http://www.centreforsafety.org/Default.aspx?.

[3] Bob Macpherson, Christine Persaud and Norman Sheehan, ‘Experienced Advice Crucial in Response to Kidnappings’, Monday Developments, 26, March 2008, pp. 22–24.


[4] In May 1897, American author Mark Twain famously responded to rumours of his demise with ‘the report of my death was an exaggeration’. See http://www.twainquotes.com/Death.html.

[5] Larissa Fast and Dawn Wiest, Final Survey Report: Security Perceptions Survey, unpublished, 2007.


[6] Elizabeth Rowley, NGO Security Guidance Review Report (Baltimore, MD: Center for Refugee and Disaster Response, The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 2009).

[7] Antonio Donini et al., Humanitarian Agenda 2015: The State of the Humanitarian Enterprise (Medford, MA: Feinstein International Center, 2008), available from at http://fic.tufts.edu/?pid=75.

[8] For example, the Save the Children Code of Conduct for its staff members explicitly forbids the exploitation of children. The Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief links standards to operational details. The Red Cross Code is available at http://www.icrc.org/Web/eng/siteeng0.nsf/html/p1067.