Security guidelines: no guarantee for improved security
by Koenraad Van Brabant February 1997

The proliferation of armed conflicts and of private aid agencies working in them, whether for humanitarian or for competitive reasons, puts an increasing number of staff at serious risk. Although good statistics are lacking, it appears that a rapidly increasing number of national and international agency staff are being killed or injured through acts of war and violence. This article looks at the production and use of security guidelines – a tool commonly used by agencies to try and reduce the level of risk in the field – and concludes that current practice is wanting.

Perhaps the primary reason why security guidelines are often ineffective, is that they are, by their nature, fairly rigid, whereas the environment in which many humanitarian programmes takes place is extremely complex. Understanding the dynamics of the conflict can be a significant achievement in itself, but reducing risk will often depend upon an agency’s skills in diplomacy, public relations and political positioning.

For agencies are not only at risk of being caught in the crossfire of a conflict – the resources they control can also make them the direct targets of bandits and looters, as well as of local power brokers who may view them as rivals. In addition, the high profile of humanitarian organisations, and the fact that aid is often used as an important instrument of foreign policy, can mean that international aid agencies become the object of politically-motivated hostage-taking and terrorist attacks.

The most recent murder of six ICRC staff in Chechnya tragically illustrates this development.

Detailed, inter-agency analysis of security incidents would improve the overall level of understanding for all agencies. Currently, this is not standard practice, nor a standard recommendation in security guidelines.

Even where security is regularly reviewed at inter-agency meetings, the reporting of incidents is not necessarily accompanied by an analysis of their political significance.

Aid agencies should systematically conduct formal inquiries into security incidents and disseminate the results within and between agencies. Agencies should also discuss with others any changes to their procedures.

For example, under certain circumstances, where agency offices or vehicles risk becoming deliberately targeted, some NGOs may remove logos and office signboards. This has security implications for agencies individually but possibly also collectively.

It is important that there is an opportunity for the humanitarian agencies to discuss such policy changes.

Another problem with security guidelines, is that they are only as good as the person who produces them.

Frequently, project managers or country representatives are asked to produce or review security guidelines, yet may not be qualified to do so. Sometimes, but not always, there may be a designated manager in headquarters whose duty is to check that security guidelines have been produced and reviewed.

The personal experience of the author is of arriving at a new posting and receiving security guidelines that did not mention mines or ambushes, despite both being a real risk, or of witnessing well-intentioned managers draw up elaborate plans around the least likely scenario, while overlooking the major risks. It is relatively easy to declare an area a ‘no-go zone’ and to impose a curfew on staff movements outside the compound at night. The difficulty lies in the ‘grey’ areas, where risk exists but is not continuous or acute.

Assessing risk and determining risk reduction behaviour is a skill that few staff may have, particularly those without professional military training.

When recruiting, the majority of agencies do not consciously look for security-assessment skills, nor is training generally offered in such an area. Sometimes it might be possible to hire a national staff member with such skills, although the programme manager will still need to have the capacity to assess an applicant’s skills and performance. There is a wider organisational responsibility here, that is being obscured by a delegation of authority that may be appropriate in principle, but not in practice.

Security guidelines in themselves are an administrative document. As such they become a reference in case of disagreement but do not actively reduce risk. Security professionals, military and other, receive training, while institutions in many countries, under health and safety regulations, are required to regularly practice safety procedures. Yet, surprisingly enough, aid agencies working in conflict, generally do not organise any practical security training and drill for staff.

While some agencies have organised driver training and first aid courses, very few have a radio technician permanently in the field or train their staff in basic radio techniques and radio repairs. Hardly any organise exercises, for example on how to act in an ambush, what to do when you suspect you might be in a minefield, or how to make a simple dugout or basic bunker. There are generally no simulation exercises on how to constitute a convoy or how to evacuate a post or position.

Along the same lines, managers are also expected to help staff cope with the stress that inevitably accompanies a high-risk posting, yet are not trained in how to do so. If lucky they are given a leaflet with ‘10 ways to reduce stress’ – another example of the mistaken belief that practical problems can be addressed merely by producing paper.

Too often, pre-assignment briefings on security-related issues are vague and inadequate. For example, it seems that few senior field managers know what insurance cover the organisation provides its staff in a high-risk area (see article on war-risk insurance on page 4). This is not normally addressed in briefings and seldom made clear in personnel manuals. Another important area is the limits of an organisation’s responsibility towards national staff and their families. For national staff, agency policy can be an important element of their risk assessment and, if there is trouble, will influence their choice of action. It is unacceptable for organisations to leave such matters to the ‘discretion’ of country representatives.

What the above reveals is that, while there is currently much debate about the role of aid in conflict, and a corresponding increase in understanding of the issues, in practice, agencies lack the necessary professional skills to handle security matters, and have only limited institutional learning and training mechanisms to improve this situation.

Short-term funding, stagnant or shrinking budgets, short-term contracts that hinder career development and the retaining of experienced staff, and competing priority areas for professionalisation and training, all work against a rapid and effective improvement of security management in the field. However, as recent events in Rwanda, Chechnya and elsewhere demonstrate, there is a real need for agencies to invest in acquiring the appropriate security skills.

It is hoped that a commitment to the Code of Best Practice in the Management and Support of Aid Personnel (see Network Paper 20) will lead to a genuine improvement in security management on the ground.