Risk transfer through hardening mentalities?

January 21, 2010
Madeleine Kingston and Oliver Behn from the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF)

The UN Secretary-General’s recent remarks on staff security[1], in light of serious assaults in Kabul and Islamabad, addressed a general trend towards deadly targeted attacks on UN facilities and personnel.

An urgent review of security measures and “overall exposure” is underway. The UN comprehensive approach involves temporary removal of non-core staff from Afghanistan and Pakistan; closer cooperation with military actors to enhance the security of staff whilst maintaining access; firmer pressure on states to provide protection and space to UN staff; supported by measures designed to harden the target.

The Secretary-General is asking for a surge in resources for security management, including a $25m emergency fund to help UNDSS “meet new demands in an increasingly dangerous world”.

Increased protection and deterrence measures seem necessary steps for the UN. Yet unintended consequences could result in a transfer and concentration of risk for NGOs.


Towards protective mindsets?

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, additional security units will guard UN facilities and guest houses. In West Darfur and Chad, the persistent threat of armed banditry has led to armed guards and armed escorts for UN agencies, provoking debate about risk deflection to NGOs. UNHCR hopes to mitigate this by requiring partner organisations to make use of armed escorts; the recent sway of kidnappings in the region fuels the debate further. 

Some NGOs will oppose these developments, yet others might respond favourably to embrace a mentality of “hardening” in insecure environments. In highly criminalized environments there is little choice other than increased protection, and as a last resort suspension of activities.

The quick and tangible path to security through protection and deterrence is undoubtedly seductive. With adequate resources, targets may be bolstered and restrictions imposed on movement outside fenced compounds. A “fortress mentality” may be especially prevalent where potential legal consequences of staff neglect begin to override the raison d’être of providing assistance to those most in need.

Ultimately, the right approach to security rests not on the balance between acceptance, protection and deterrence, but on approaches that enable the impartial delivery of humanitarian assistance to those populations most affected and most vulnerable. Agencies can implement successfully only if they are accepted by every group carrying arms and controlling violence. So if harder protection and deterrence measures are necessary, this must be combined with an equal increase in resources for acceptance approaches, to facilitate long-term access and security within changing political environments. 

Safety and security of aid workers requires intense exchange and collective analysis, yet individual identities and approaches must be respected. The joint UN/NGO/IO ‘Saving Lives Together’ Framework holds potential as an effective platform.

Through SLT, agencies could influence mechanisms for the distribution of much-needed resources to NGOs for security management. Since NGOs are responsible for implementing many UN-led programmes, and comprise the greatest presence in insecure areas, it is vital that arrangements for resource transfer are institutionalised. Some NGOs are critical of tardy, UN-centric funding mechanisms.

Dedicated SLT platforms could facilitate much-needed communication between UN agencies and NGOs, to raise awareness of differing threat profiles. Common understanding of varying levels of exposure and risk would help mitigate unintentional risk transfer. These mechanisms could also acknowledge high levels of exposure of local aid workers, for whom security incidents, including fatalities, pass largely unrecognised.


What implications of coordination?

The sharing of security-related information is a positive step, long neglected by all actors. But what does joint analysis and resource sharing imply if the UN’s primary strategies are protective and deterrent? The SLT focus on practical rather than principled collaboration could lead to a convergence in UN and NGO strategies, whilst diversity in mandate and modus operandi is increasingly emphasised.

Will greater access to resources, and more determined participation through SLT, suffice to mitigate unintentional risk transfer from the resource rich to the resource poor? Will it overcome the fear that may lead NGOs to neglect acceptance strategies and environmental interaction, which have been central to humanitarian identity and programme goals? Will the UN share resources predominantly for protection mechanisms, or also for acceptance approaches? Active acceptance remains relatively undefined, but must be integral to a more sustainable solution.

The UN acknowledges its multilateral make-up, and the clear perception amongst some local actors that it is political. Heavy involvement in democratisation in Afghanistan underlines this. The UN’s special status may actually compel (some) NGOs to maintain greater distance, rather than collaborate closely in the spirit of SLT.

The threat of direct attacks against UN and NGO staff poses a dilemma for many humanitarian NGOs. They favour locally-defined acceptance approaches, but fear the effects of internationally-inspired targeting and exposure to escalating risk. NGOs must develop a consistent approach. An approach that reconciles SLT collaboration with distance from political actors undertaking humanitarian activities; and that balances acceptance, protection and deterrence, enabling them to reach all victims safely.


[1] ‘Remarks to the General Assembly on Staff Security’, available at http://www.un.org/apps/sg/sgstats.asp?nid=4201.


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