In Focus 81, Sharon Commins wrote about the need for aid agencies to professionalise their security management and take seriously their duty of care to frontline staff.
If a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out. But if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.” So goes the analogy often cited to explain individual aid workers’ inability to react to significant changes in their security environment which occur gradually.
This is why the security of aid personnel ought to be the responsibility of the sending aid agency which has a ‘duty of care’ to front line staff. The concept of duty of care presumes that organisations “are responsible for their employees’ well-being and must take practical steps to mitigate foreseeable workplace dangers”, according to Lisabeth Claus, Professor of Global HR at the Atkinson Graduate School of Management of Willamette University. This responsibility takes on additional implications when the employees are working overseas. With some 278 humanitarian workers reported to have been victims of security incidents in 2009 alone, the issue of staff security remains centre stage.
The recent feature “Risky Business” by Maeve Galvin in this publication on the subject of the increasing hazards of aid work overlooked one key aspect of the security equation: the ‘duty of care’ that aid agencies have to staff. While communities in the greatest humanitarian need are often located in areas that present the greatest safety and security risks to agency staff, many of the dangers involved are avoidable or, at the very least, can be substantially reduced through good risk management, appropriate training and adherence to best practice among those involved.
“Morally, agencies have a duty of care towards their employees and colleagues. While aid work implies a certain level of risk, agencies need to be sure that all reasonable measures are taken to mitigate this risk,” according to Humanitarian Policy Group’s policy paper of December 2010. [The first edition of Operational Security Management in Violent Environments was published in 2000. Since then it has become the seminal document in humanitarian operational security management, and is credited with increasing the understanding of good practice in this area throughout such agencies.]
“The legal requirement of duty of care of the employer is becoming increasingly important,” according to the HPG Humanitarian Practice Network (HPN), an independent forum for policy-makers and practitioners working in or on the humanitarian sector to share and disseminate information, analysis and experience. “It is the responsibility of the organisation to proactively inform employees, potential employees and associated personnel such as consultants about security risks.
This allows individuals to exercise ‘informed consent’ – i.e. to accept a degree of risk after having been made fully aware of the extent of the risk.” Risk Management It is now widely recognised, according to a recent study commissioned by the Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), that the objective for humanitarian actors in complex security environments is not to avoid risk, but to manage risk in a way that allows them to remain present and effective in their work.
‘Acceptable Risk’ A key concept in the risk management process is the ‘threshold of acceptable risk’, defined as the point beyond which the risk is deemed too high to continue operating. The threshold is determined by the probability that an incident will occur and the seriousness of the impact if it occurs. The onus is on each organisation to explicitly define and consciously determine its threshold of acceptable risk related to the criticality of its programme, according to the OCHA report. “It is imperative that all staff are aware of the organisation’s risk threshold in each setting and are operating on the basis of informed consent.” The issue here, as noted by the report, is that responses to safety and security challenges vary widely across the aid sector.
What constitutes ‘acceptable risk’ varies from organisation to organisation and is heavily dependent on the organisation’s culture, values, principles, management approaches, and how critical staff are perceived to be to the organisation’s success. This is why it is imperative that humanitarian workers, especially those starting out, research the security management of agencies before they take up posts in high risk areas. Organisations that do not examine these risks carefully and show clearly the steps they are taking to mitigate them are likely to be found to be acting irresponsibly.
For example, an American aid worker recently announced her intention to sue aid agency Samaritan’s Purse for failing to protect her against abduction and secure her release; an unprecedented development. The aid worker claims the organisation failed to take heed of the threat of abduction in the area and subsequently put its financial and political prerogatives above her safety. This case will likely provoke a fear among humanitarian agencies of being sued by employees and in turn trigger responsibility for aid worker safety being shifted away from the individual towards the organisation. Agencies should never put access to increased donor funds ahead of the security of staff on the ground.
The absolute priority must be the safety of front line staff. Statistics show that nearly one-third of deaths of humanitarian workers occur during their first three months of duty. “Preparing a staff member for their assignment is probably the single most important thing an organisation can do”, according to Christine Williamson of People in Aid. First aid and security training on how to react in the event of a hold up or kidnapping have been described as like a “seatbelt” which, while not able to prevent the car crash, might make the difference between life and death.
While the primary responsibility for staff security lies with host governments and aid agencies themselves, the safety and well-being of aid workers is nevertheless a major priority for institutional donors internationally. Both institutional and private donors expect their money to be used responsibly. They expect NGO partner agencies to do everything they can to minimise the risk to front line staff, to have in place sound security plans, and to equip their staff to anticipate, avoid and react to problems as they occur.
While this expectation is articulated and spelled out in donor guidelines, there remains a need to ensure the greatest possible clarity as to the standards expected by donors and aid agencies alike in terms of professional humanitarian security management. Ultimately, if donors demand a higher standard of security management for staff, and threaten to cut funding, then aid organisations which have previously not taken seriously their duty of care are likely to respond by increasing the professionalisation of their security management. Sharon Commins was kidnapped in Sudan’s Darfur area for 106 days in 2009 when she worked with GOAL.
She has subsequently accused the agency of failing to provide proper protection for staff. She is currently working in the aid sector in Ireland. Comhlámh recently facilitated a workshop on this issue with D’talk, recognising its importance – for more info please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, Comhlámh offers a range of support services to returned development and humanitarian aid workers. These services include subsidies to access counselling sessions and personal/group and post traumatic stress debriefings.