In the past years there has been amongst NGOs, and in particular amongst humanitarian agencies, a rising concern for the security and safety. They are increasingly confronted with more and more dangerous and hostile environments. This is especially true since 2001 and the beginning of the global “War on Terror” initiated by the Bush administration and his acolytes which marked a new dimension in the evolution of an already existing trend.
For decades humanitarian agencies would mostly operate in contexts of asymmetric warfare between territorial states, in which the objectives of the contenders were relatively defined and unambiguous. Moreover, each conflicting party had a hierarchical structure that – in theory – followed or claimed to follow and respect the rules of war and the related international conventions. Nowadays, the number of different actors, their objectives and their low or limited military training and hierarchical structure, combined with the changes in the nature of the conflicts, represent a significant transformation in the working environment in which humanitarian agencies operate. In the majority of cases the new conflicts or war settings do not correspond to the traditional pattern nor they obey to an element of territoriality. This results in muddied objectives. The different actors and forces are decentralized and typically do not recognize (nor know, in many cases) International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Convention. As a consequence, this results in an increase of attacks against civilians and humanitarian workers.
Many of these attacks are parts of political strategies that have a clear message and intention. It is therefore essential to develop an understanding of the nature of the conflicts, to be aware of these changing realities and of the different interacting actors, as well as of their interests and strategies. Simultaneously, humanitarian agencies need to transmit a coherent image, and develop clear strategies to communicate their specific principles, role and responsibilities and the humanitarian objectives of their action.
In recent years, NGOs have developed security policies, manuals and procedures to facilitate and help a better management of their own security. The degree and level of these tools vary according to the organizations and their capabilities. However, one of the most frequent deficiencies is the lack of understanding and knowledge of the contexts in which they work. With the exception of a few, most of the organizations have not been able to develop a constant and methodical analysis of their area of operations, and of the risks it entails. On the contrary, in most cases they simply tend to apply a set of protocols and procedures that – without a good analysis of the particular context – cannot, alone, mitigate the potential threats and risks towhich theycan be exposed.
This obviously affects any strategies adopted to maintain operations in volatile and insecure settings.
On the other hand, humanitarian agencies have increasingly “militarized” their security. Such “militarization”, as a consequence, deepens even more the gap and their ability to respond with an appropriate strategic vision.
One of the most significant changes occurred in the dimension of the “Security Triangle” (Acceptance, Protection and Deterrence) which vary depending on the working environments, organizations and available resources. The acceptance strategy is the primary, and by default, security strategy used by NGOs. Despite that, their misconception of this concept on the one hand and, on the other, the new complex contexts of most of humanitarian interventions, are today for the vast majority of NGOs a major challenge, a pending cornerstone.
Additionally, in the current and increasingly changing environment there is some controversy regarding the current value and effectiveness of acceptance as security strategy.
However, should we really question acceptance as an effective security strategy, or does the problem reside elsewhere? Certainly the lack of knowledge and analysis of the given context makes the agencies more vulnerable than they, perhaps, should be. Itisthereforefundamental to understandthat:
a)Acceptance must be a proactive strategy, which requires specific resources and actions. In most organizations this does not occur. The vast majority of them erroneously assume the acceptance strategy passively.
b)Acceptance is the result of how an organization is perceived and it depends on several factors, including most importantly its official position and the behavior of its personnel.
c)Acceptance requires a high maintenance in terms of staff, time and resources that not all agencies have or can maintain.
d)Most of the agencies lack experienced staff and knowledge of the dynamics of the conflicts and actors.
Simultaneously, in the daily work of NGOs, security remains a marginal element. This in many cases is seen as an impediment or obstacle rather than an element that aids them in their work in conflict and insecure settings.
Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that there has been an improvement of the security situation of NGOs. Security criteria have been integrated into organizational criteria, resulting in the development of security policies, procedures and practices, and well as in the allocation of resources (financial, human, etc.). Despite these achievements, most of the agencies lack the necessary resources and strategies to operate in complex and insecure settings. The security management starts, and does not end, in the knowledge of the working environment, its dynamics and actors. The deficiency of knowledge and understanding of the context, the lack of rigor in the analysis of the threats and risks makes the implementation of security protocols and procedures weak and, in some cases, inadequate. In order to ensure that these measures are effective and thus guarantee a better security management, it is essential to mainstream the analysis of the conditions, threats and risks where NGOs operates. Moreover, agencies must ensure a constant, regular and methodical assessment of the given context as fundamental tool not only for their security but also for their interventions and re-adaptation of programs and activities.