A group of armed men serves as security detail in Somalia. What can international aid groups do to protect their staff working in dangerous areas? Photo by: NRC / ECHO / CC BY-SA

On-the-ground training and strong in-house security policies help to ward off attacks against aid workers, according to several security directors and specialists consulted by Devex.

U.S. courts have also stepped in, forcing humanitarian groups to ramp up their internal security controls in light of kidnappings and deaths of their staff. However, the experts admitted that in many remote and dangerous places, it's simply impossible to plan and prevent all attacks.

Here are five pieces of advice and tips the experts we spoke to passed along as good starting points for talking about security for humanitarians working in the danger zone:

1. Negotiate and reach out. In certain cases, the “active acceptance approach” to working in hostile environments can prevent issues for aid groups before they arise, said Abby Stoddard, a partner at Humanitarian Outcomes, a London-based consultancy that tracks attacks on aid workers. This includes negotiating with “belligerents,” or others who might pose a threat and actively seeking out and talking to members of the local community you’re working in. Most international nongovernmental organizations use at least part of this approach, instead of relying on highly protective or deterrent measures, such as armed guards.

2. Identify your surroundings: Risk assessments take into account numerous factors, including the unique location of an aid organizations operating in a risky location. This includes the organization’s neighbors and their programming. “If you’re working in Pakistan, it’s going to be much more dangerous to work next door to a place that’s focusing on female education than if they’re working on water sanitation,” said John Schafer, who runs Schafer Consulting Group, a U.S.-based security firm for aid organizations. “You have to think about the culture and the environment.” Most of this information is included in state- or province-specific research provided by security consultants.

3. Trickle-down approach to risk. All too often, the security risks facing aid workers are communicated to an organization’s expatriate staff but not to the local staff working on the ground, analysts said. And local staffers might be afraid to ask questions or express their feelings, for fear of losing their jobs. That means aid groups should train all of their staff, including the lowest person on the organization chart. “A little thing like putting a CEO’s signature on all of the safety and security documents shows that everyone, from management on down to the local staff, needs to read this and understand what the risks are,” Schafer said. In-country national staffers of NGOs face the greatest risks, according to Humanitarian Outcomes; in 2013 more than 87 percent of all aid worker victims were national staff.

4. Prepare and handle the victim’s family. Aid groups, security consultants and ex-hostages agree: Before, during and after a hostage crisis, the victim’s family must be involved. For aid workers, that means alerting family members to your wishes regarding ransom payments and possible government rescue operations. For aid organizations, that means working with the family and keeping everyone up to date on the negotiations. “You need to have very serious conversations with the family during a crisis and be transparent about what you’re doing,” said Jack Cloonan, who led the FBI unit hunting former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden out of New York and now heads the special risks unit for crisis management firm Red24. “Working with the family is a real test.”

5. Know the risk. As the number of direct and indirect conflict deaths has fallen in recent decades, the exposure of humanitarian aid workers to violence has increased and as a result, the United Nations, the Red Cross and various international NGOs have assumed a greater “risk tolerance,” said Larissa Fast, a Notre Dame conflict researcher who wrote a book on aid worker security, “Aid in Danger.” In recent years, the risk has shifted to organizations working in war-torn locations, and there is now a greater reliance on native-born, national staff, who lack the training or security skills of their international counterparts.

Would you suggest any other tips for aid workers operating in dangerous environments? Please let us know by sending an email to news@devex.com or leaving a comment below.

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About the authors

  • Derek kravitz

    Derek Kravitz

    Derek Kravitz is a research scholar at New York’s Columbia University, working on a forthcoming book project about the Afghanistan war. In the past, Kravitz worked for The Associated Press and The Washington Post in Washington, D.C., and now in New York he’s a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and TheNewYorker.com. Kravitz is a former fellow at Columbia University's Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.
  • Colm omolloy profile

    Colm O'Molloy

    Colm O'Molloy is a multi-platform journalist based in Washington D.C., where where he reports on North American stories for BBC News and other outlets. He has extensive experience of working in conflict zones, including Nigeria and Afghanistan. O'Molloy conducted extensive research into global kidnap and ransom trends as a fellow at Columbia University's Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.