Issue 47 - Article 10

NGO responses to insecurity in Darfur

June 24, 2010
Ivor Morgan was formerly Country Former Director for the Swiss NGO Medair in Khartoum, Sudan

NGOs in Darfur have adapted operations reasonably effectively in response to insecurity, to allow aid delivery to continue. They have been less effective at predicting and proactively responding to emerging threats. This article reviews how NGOs have responded to the main hazards in Darfur (carjackings, compound raids and kidnapping), through the lens of the classic ‘security triangle’ (acceptance, protection and deterrence). It also discusses security-related interactions with other actors, and the implications of these various changes in security management.


Protection strategies


Although white four-wheel-drive vehicles (4WDs) are synonymous with humanitarian NGOs in many countries, in Darfur the threat of carjacking means they are now hardly used. Instead, NGOs are renting much older, less powerful 4WDs, and using small saloon cars for travel within towns. In remote rural areas, some NGOs have used donkey-carts or walked. This approach is not without problems. Rental vehicles are generally in poor condition and less well-equipped than the modern 4WDs NGOs would normally use. In effect, NGOs have lowered their normal vehicle safety standards and accepted a higher risk of accidents or breakdowns to reduce the threat of carjacking. Humanitarian agencies have also become increasingly reliant on expensive UN-operated helicopters for access to ‘deep field’ locations and areas inaccessible by road during the rainy season.

Compound raids

The threat of compound raids and kidnapping has increased attention on compound security. Many NGOs initially eschewed UN approaches, such as barbed wire and Minimum Operational Residence Security Standards (MORSS) compliance, feeling that they undermined ‘acceptance’ by local communities and marked out compounds as containing things worth stealing. Over time, however, most NGOs have adjusted their approaches. One simple action has been to move generators inside compound walls to prevent assailants from forcing entry when a guard steps outside late at night to turn the generator off. Another involves storing vehicles separately from guesthouses, so a raid to steal vehicles does not turn into an assault on staff. Many NGOs now also seek MORSS compliance for their Darfur compounds, raising walls and using razor wire. In some cases these standards are even exceeded, for example by using better-quality interior doors to protect staff should perpetrators succeed in entering a compound. There is anecdotal evidence that such modifications, if well managed, do not necessarily lead to reduced acceptance.


The kidnap threat in particular has forced NGOs to adapt their operations, including increasing preparations to handle an abduction: collecting ‘proof of life’ information from staff; reviewing crisis management plans; and preparing staff to cope if they are kidnapped, with ‘Hostage Incident Cards’ providing a pocket-sized reminder of key guidelines. Measures have also been taken to mitigate the risk. In addition to improving compound security, international staff numbers have been reduced in rural areas, especially overnight, and steps have been taken to reduce the predictability of staff movements.

Acceptance strategies

Most NGOs in Darfur would state a preference for acceptance strategies. There have been some innovative approaches, such as ‘community escorts’, where respected community elders travel with an NGO convoy to reduce the risk of attack, or ‘acceptance projects’ implemented in urban areas of a state capital, to encourage acceptance by the host community as well as by IDPs living on the periphery. However, overall protective strategies are more common than acceptance strategies following security incidents.

Some observers believe that acceptance was undermined by the initial response to the crisis in Darfur, in which most assistance was directed to IDPs. Nomadic communities, amongst the most vulnerable prior to the conflict, have sometimes used their exclusion from assistance as justification for attacking humanitarian agencies. In addition, some local media outlets have undermined acceptance by repeatedly carrying inaccurate stories that deliberately portray NGOs negatively. Although NGOs have acknowledged the need to counter this by providing positive stories to the media, and have been encouraged to do so by the Sudanese government, many lack the necessary capacity at field level. Others fear that talking to the media will have negative repercussions.

The limits to acceptance must be acknowledged. In one incident during the upsurge in violence that followed the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) in May 2006, several NGO national staff were attacked in an IDP camp, with one beaten to death. Their agency had been working in the camp for two years, and had developed good relations with its inhabitants. However, when a false rumour went round that the water supply was being poisoned, the agency’s previous history in the camp was not enough to protect its staff. There are also situations where a local community may ‘accept’ an NGO’s presence, but be unable to protect the agency (or themselves) against threats from external actors.


Deterrence strategies

Deterrence strategies, involving the use of armed guards or escorts, are a particularly sensitive topic in Darfur. Most NGOs prefer to avoid armed guards or escorts, except in extreme circumstances, but there is no clear agreement on what constitutes such circumstances. Although NGOs in Sudan endorsed guidelines for Darfur in 2007 that committed them to ‘consider using military or armed escorts only as a last resort and never as a long-term solution to a conflict environment’, awareness of this commitment is limited and it has not been used to guide decision-making. Likewise, the IASC’s Non-Binding Guidelines On When To Use Military Or Armed Escorts have not been used to inform collective, inter-agency decision-making in specific situations. That said, the vast majority of NGOs are carrying out their programmes without relying on armed protection.

Interaction with other actors


The Sudanese government has overall responsibility for the protection of humanitarian workers. Efforts by many NGOs to develop good relations with the authorities have helped to address bureaucratic restrictions and provided space to discuss security issues. For example, the government took action to stop compound raids in West Darfur after concerns were raised by NGOs. At the same time, however, NGOs have raised concerns with the government about perceived impunity for perpetrators of attacks against humanitarian workers. For its part, the government cites lack of evidence and witnesses as reasons for the lack of prosecutions.

Interagency initiatives

Following the upsurge in violence and insecurity that followed the DPA, there was discussion around a ‘collective threshold’ or an agreed point at which all agencies would decide to withdraw. It quickly became clear, however, that agencies were reluctant to commit in advance to closing their programmes in response to an incident affecting a different agency in a different area. Instead, a joint UN/NGO ‘Strategy To Regain Humanitarian Space’ was proposed, covering dialogue with the parties to the conflict to promote understanding of humanitarian principles; awareness-raising with local communities to promote understanding of humanitarian operations; addressing bureaucratic restrictions; enhancing safety and security through the ‘Saving Lives Together’ initiative (see below); and strengthening the capacity of field staff to cope with the stressful environment in Darfur. Despite some progress in addressing bureaucratic problems, movement in other areas has been limited, and there has been no concerted effort to implement the strategy.

Timely sharing of information about actual incidents or near-misses is crucial to collective security. In West Darfur, NGOs, with UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) support, established a culture of sharing information about security incidents. Immediate notification of an incident would be shared via a UNDSS-managed SMS system, with more detailed analysis circulated by email later. If any NGO failed to circulate appropriate information after an incident, other agencies would remind them to do so.

Other informal interagency collaboration efforts have addressed specific security concerns. Guidelines on contingency planning were circulated to NGOs in late 2008, prior to the ICC announcement on 4 March 2009 that it was issuing an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir, and advice on dealing with the threat of kidnapping was circulated in 2009, immediately after it was identified as a new trend. In response to pressure by local authorities to place armed police guards at NGO compounds, NGOs developed a position paper stating a preference for area rather than point security, which was translated into Arabic to facilitate communication with local authorities.


The ‘Saving Lives Together’ project

In 2007, the Humanitarian Coordinator proposed that UNDSS should deploy four Security Officers under the Saving Lives Together (SLT) initiative. The deployment of staff has however been extremely slow, and the quality of support provided by other UNDSS staff has varied greatly. In accordance with the global SLT initiative, INGO representatives attend UNAMID’s weekly Darfur-wide Security Management Team (SMT) and state-level Area SMTs. This has assisted information flow and helped to ensure that NGOs are included in UN relocation planning.


Remote programming and risk transfer

How programmes are delivered has also changed, with a shift towards ‘remote programming’ through local staff or partners. This has arguably had the effect of transferring risk to local actors. In some cases, national staff may be at less risk than internationals because of their long-term presence and their better understanding of the security situation. However, there are also situations in which national staff may be more at risk than international staff, due to their ethnicity or perceived political allegiance. It is not clear to what extent NGOs have been able to objectively assess risks to staff. It is certainly the case that the kidnapping of 11 international staff during 2009 (all of whom were released) attracted far more attention, from the humanitarian community as well as the international media, than the deaths of 13 national staff during 2006.


Flexibility in decision-making

Flexible and responsive decision-making is needed regarding security in Darfur. This may mean relaxing some security procedures, such as using older, less well-equipped vehicles to reduce the risk of carjacking, or it may mean adopting ‘stronger’ procedures, such as using razor wire on compound walls. Flexibility is also needed in deciding whether an area is safe to travel in or to. After a serious incident, staff are usually relocated until a determination is made that it is safe to return. Deciding whether (and when) to return to a location requires a nuanced understanding of both the local and broader security context. Several NGOs have developed checklists or indicators to guide such decisions.


Human resources management

The relationship between security management, human resource management and programme management is a complex one. Although organisations need to set levels of acceptable risk, individual staff also need to decide what they deem to be acceptable themselves. In Darfur, some agencies have made a point of repeatedly telling staff that they should feel able to withdraw if they no longer felt comfortable with the level of risk, even if the agency as a whole was willing to stay. By contrast, some staff may be prepared to take more risks than their organisation would accept, and may become frustrated by the need to adhere to security procedures. In such an environment, managing staff expectations becomes an important part of enabling good security management.


Financial issues

Adapting to insecurity in Darfur has imposed significant additional costs for humanitarian agencies. Transports costs have risen because staff increasingly travel by air and contractors charge premiums for transporting supplies by risky land routes. NGOs have also had to invest more in communications equipment, including hefty licensing fees. The need to continuously upgrade compound security in response to changes in risk has also proved expensive. Staff deploying in Darfur may require more frequent breaks, special security training and psychosocial support and time off if they are involved in an incident. Changes in the security situation may require a reduction or suspension of programme activities, while administrative and overhead costs continue or even increase. Adequate and flexible donor funding for agencies working in contexts such as Darfur is crucial.



During 2009 14 international staff were kidnapped and 87 vehicles hijacked between January and October. Frequent adaptation has enabled NGOs in Darfur to continue delivering humanitarian assistance in the face of these high levels of insecurity – although there are concerns that the limits of such adaptation will soon be reached. However, there has generally been insufficient attention paid to developing acceptance strategies, and communicating what NGOs do, and how they do it. While the security of one NGO is inextricably linked with that of other NGOs and UN agencies, including UNAMID, collaboration across the aid community is not what it might be and must be improved.


Ivor Morgan was formerly Country Director for the Swiss NGO Medair in Khartoum, Sudan. He is writing here in a personal capacity.


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