Issue 18 - Article 20

A more proactive UN role in the security of NGO staff?

June 3, 2003
Randolph Martin

The deaths of UNHCR workers in West Timor and Guinea in September 2000 once again focused attention on the precarious security circumstances under which humanitarian relief work is often conducted. But efforts by the UN to improve the security of its field operations will do little to help NGOs.

The UN is taking significant steps to improve the security of its field operations. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s report – Safety and Security of United Nations Personnel – reviews the scope of the problem faced by the UN in the field, and the shortcomings of a strategy developed 20 years ago in very different circumstances.

The report sets out proposals to improve security, including appointing a Security Coordinator at Assistant-Secretary-General level; establishing a more reliable mechanism for funding Field Security Officers; and increased resources for the UN Security Coordinator (UNSECOORD), to enhance staff training, security assessments, counselling and stress management. These proposals are a step – if not a leap – in the right direction. However, beyond recognising that NGOs face the same challenging operating environment, the report makes no mention of the need to increase coordination and joint security efforts with the NGO community. This is a significant oversight not only for NGOs, but also for the security of UN field operations themselves.

The UN is increasingly dependent on the NGO community. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as a case in point, relies heavily upon NGO ‘implementing partners’ – NGOs with a contractual relationship with a UN agency for implementing a specific project under UN funding – to achieve its mandate. In 1999, UNHCR budgeted nearly $300m through its implementing partners. Yet it has done little to clarify how it will work with these partners in ensuring security in the field beyond ad hoc arrangements. As a result, security management in each situation is so dramatically different that it is difficult to grasp the overall vision, leaving NGOs not knowing what to expect and plan for until it is too late.

Conversely, when UNHCR does choose to take a coordinating role in security, the results can be impressive. When it calls a security-coordination meeting for NGOs, they come. When it establishes a common communications network or frequency, NGOs participate. When UNHCR offers NGOs technical advice or training, they are generally keen to tap that expertise. These are roles that UNHCR is uniquely positioned to offer. Moreover, in most situations it is far better placed than most NGOs to approach national and regional authorities – or major donors – at the highest levels to advocate for humanitarian access and the security of aid workers.

The Memorandum of Understanding

The UN has attempted to reach a more formal security agreement with NGOs. In 1996, UNSECOORD – the UN office mandated to provide policy and technical support on security matters to the UN family – drafted a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in an effort to establish a framework for a security relationship between UN organisations and their NGO implementing partners. Under the terms of the MoU, the responsibilities of the UN include unspecified ‘protection of international staff’, the inclusion of ‘relevant information’ about international staff in the UN’s security plan, keeping the NGO informed about security developments and measures being implemented by the UN and, ‘to the extent possible’, providing travel assistance in an emergency. ‘Where possible’, the UN also agrees to represent NGOs’ security concerns to the host authorities.

In exchange, the MoU requires that signatory implementing partners ‘fully follow the instructions of [the UN] regarding security matters’, while at the same time assuming ‘all risks and liabilities related to the security’ of staff and dealing with ‘all claims as may be brought against the United Nations arising from the extension under the Memorandum … to its international staff’. Surrendering authority in this way has been a central issue for NGOs – particularly in view of the hazy promises for protection that are given in return. The MoU goes on to require that NGOs ‘ensure that the [UN] is at all times informed of the whereabouts and movements … of international staff’. The MoU also requires that the NGOs ‘lend, when possible and to the extent feasible, on a reimbursable basis, travel assistance to [UN personnel]’.

In short, the MoU provides for the exchange of security-related information and the evacuation of international staff in return for the NGO surrendering its authority on security matters to the UN. The MoU has raised as many issues as it attempts to address. What exactly is an ‘implementing partner’: does the MoU pertain to NGO staff funded by other donors, but working on UN-funded projects? Does the MoU extend to an implementing partner’s staff working on complementary programmes not funded by the UN? Is the MoU in effect when NGOs are implementing projects in good faith during the often protracted periods when the UN is processing proposals and agreements and, in a strictly formal sense, there is no agreement between the NGO and the UN? It is not uncommon for these periods of contractual limbo to stretch for months. Do the provisions of the MoU relating to evacuation pertain to national staff which are brought into an area to implement a UN-funded project? What if an NGO disobeys UNHCR’s security instructions – is the entire MoU revoked, or are the recalcitrant NGO staff simply omitted from the related portion of the security plan, such as evacuation?

Why is it unreasonable for the UN to expect that NGOs would want to ‘fully follow the instruction of the [UN] regarding security matters’? Part of the answer must lie with the culture of independence under which most NGOs operate. However, there are other concerns. First, an NGO’s response to a security environment should be primarily related to its global mandate and local mission. An NGO implementing agricultural-extension services, for instance, is likely to have a much lower risk tolerance than an NGO undertaking life-saving medical services. It is unrealistic to expect both of these organisations to respond to security situations in the same way.

Second, the UN’s own response to security environments can be compromised by financial concerns unrelated to NGOs. If, for example, UNHCR’s Resident Representative is unwilling to prioritise funding from the country budget, no Field Security Officer is appointed; according to Annan’s report, only 60 of 80 high-risk posts have assigned security officers. There is no Field Security Officer in Uganda, for example, making UNHCR staff reluctant to visit sites in the insecure north. As a result, UNHCR personnel spent little more than a few days in the Achol Pii refugee camp in 2000. Nevertheless, UNHCR expects NGOs to carry out services in the camp on a daily basis. If NGOs were to follow UNHCR’s lead on security, there would simply be no services. Funding is also involved in the determination of the UN’s security phases, but not always as one might anticipate: according to a senior UNHCR official in Hargesa, UNHCR in Somaliland remained at phase three of alert long after conditions had improved simply because of concerns over the impact that eliminating a phase-related security allowance would have on already-low staff morale.

It would clearly be unwise for NGOs to hand over security decisions to the UN, even in the best of circumstances. Yet UNSECOORD has been resolutely unwilling to alter the MoU, even though no NGO has signed it as a global agreement. (The International Organization for Migration, which is not generally considered an NGO and has a very different set of security concerns vis-à-vis the UN, is the only organisation that has signed globally.) In 14 cases, including Liberia, Sudan and Tajikistan, NGOs have signed at a country level. This suggests that the MoU is most appropriate in places where NGOs are unlikely to have the capacity to handle the logistics of evacuation, or the diplomatic connections needed to secure humanitarian access and the protection of aid workers. IRC, for example, is one of the signatories to the MoU in Sudan, where it is working with the UN in the government-held garrison towns of the south. Conditions are difficult: evacuation options are limited and communications highly restricted, while the Sudanese government – unofficially at least – views the humanitarian effort as aiding and abetting its enemies.

Moving forward

As a global document outlining the security relationship between the UN and NGOs, the MoU is deeply flawed. It demands that NGOs surrender authority over their own security affairs in exchange for unspecified protection and support for evacuation. At the same time, the MoU does not address the many security-coordination issues that are so important to NGOs.

First, the decision to appoint a Field Security Officer should be made solely on the basis of the security environment, not upon the fiscal concerns and conflicting priorities of the Resident Representative. Accordingly, these positions – costing in the region of $100,000 each – should be financed from a separate, centrally-managed fund. This is, in essence, among the Secretary-General’s proposals.

Second, NGO security coordination should be a formal responsibility of UN Field Security Officers. Included here would be organising and facilitating routine security-coordination meetings; establishing a shared security-communications network; providing threat assessments; and exchanging pertinent security information. Participation in these activities would not be required, nor would they imply a liability to the UN. Nevertheless, they would be well attended, and valuable to NGOs and the UN alike.

Third, the UN should make a concerted effort to embrace the language and conceptual framework that NGOs have developed. UN organisations and NGOs are increasingly accepting common ‘best practices’ in many sectors of programme operations. This is an excellent opportunity for the UN to recognise and embrace the substantial achievements of its NGO partners in the field of security.

Finally, while the UNSECOORD MoU should not be abandoned, it does need reworking to clarify its function within specific contexts. It should be invoked when evacuation options are limited, and where high-level representation and coordination on security is pivotal to ensuring humanitarian access. Portions of its text should be context specific, specifying the sites it covers and the roles that can be expected from the parties working in those sites. In these limited circumstances, such a tight security regimen should be offered to UN implementing partners; it might even be required. In short, for the MoU to be useful, it is imperative that UNSECOORD show some hitherto-undemonstrated flexibility in recrafting it on a more context-specific basis.

Problems shared

The UN should clarify, if not formalise, its unique and central role in enhancing security for all humanitarian aid workers. But criticism of the UN should not be taken to imply that there is no more that NGOs can do to address their own security concerns.  Indeed, NGOs in general have a long way to go in recognising and addressing the security of their own personnel in the field. The hope that the UN can play a more active role in security coordination largely reflects the failure of NGOs to do so for themselves. Few NGOs have designated security officers at headquarters or in the field; few have adequate security-policy structures; few are adequately addressing security orientation and training; and few are adequately addressing the resource needs associated with enhancing field security. Fresh dialogue is needed between concerned NGOs and UN agencies on how we might better work together to create a more secure environment for our humanitarian missions. Clearly, we all have a long way to go.

Randolph Martin is Senior Director of Operations, International Rescue Committee, New York. A version of this article first appeared in Forced Migration Review,



The full text of the Memorandum of Understanding is available from UNSECOORD in New York; fax: +1 (212) 963 4104

Kofi Annan’s report, Safety and Security of United Nations Personnel: Report of the Security-General can be found on ReliefWeb at <>. Other relevant documents on ReliefWeb include: Luis Enrique Eguren, ‘Beyond Security Planning: Towards a Model of Security Management’, July 2000, <> (see also Eguren, ‘The Protection Gap: Policies and Strategies’, Humanitarian Exchange 17, October 2000)


NGO efforts to address security concerns include:

  • The InterAction NGO Field Cooperation Protocol <>. See also James Kunder, ‘Evaluation of the NGO Field Cooperation Protocol’, available on the HPN website at <>
  • VOICE’s Humanitarian Safety and Protection Network (HSPN) at <>
  • The People in Aid Code of Best Practice in the Management and Support of Aid Personnel, Network Paper 20 (London: Relief and Rehabilitation Network, 1997)

See also:

Randolph Martin, ‘NGO Field Security’, <www.theIRC.ORG/refref/index.cfm>

Koenraad Van Brabant, Operational Security Management in Violent Environments, Good Practice Review 8 (London: Humanitarian Practice Network, 2000)

Koenraad Van Brabant, Mainstreaming the Organisational Management of Safety and Security, HPG Report 9 (London: Humanitarian Policy Group, April 2001)


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