An aid worker attends to patients at a health center in in Mogadishu, Somalia. What steps can NGOs take to help reduce risks and fulfil duty of care obligations? Photo by: Iman Morooka / UNICEF / CC BY-NC-ND

Last year hundreds of aid workers signed an online petition to put staff care on the agenda at May’s World Humanitarian Summit. It is a good sign that staff wellness and other issues related to nongovernmental organizations’ “duty of care” will in fact be the subject of a panel discussion at the summit.

Interest in duty of care has intensified in the past decade as increased numbers of aid workers provide assistance in conflict and otherwise unstable environments. Of course, the primary issue is the well being of employees. But there are also growing organizational issues related to duty to care, including financial and reputational risks.

NGO employees are at higher risks than employees at other organizations, as outlined in a Worldwide Risk Index conducted by Clements.

The Clement Worldwide Risk Index.

Of the 420 respondents to the survey, 125 were NGOs and there were three striking differences between the two samples:

Medical evacuation 

One in four NGOs was forced to medically evacuate a staff member over the past year compared to only one in seven for other organizations.

Commenting on the Risk Index as part of a recent panel discussion, Laura Schauble, vice president of risk management for ACDI/VOCA noted: “I get calls in the middle of the night where an employee has been hospitalized locally for two days, but their condition is deteriorating and we need a rapid response. If I had been told at the start of the incident, we would be better prepared to give that employee the best care.”

Schnauble noted her group addressed this through a pre-negotiated relationship with a medical evacuation firm, often as part of an international group health insurance program.

Political violence

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One in four NGOs also dealt with a political violence incident last year, which may have affected staff or property. Harm to staff is always the worst fear. Property damage can also be devastating, as many NGOs, especially smaller groups, cannot afford repairs out of their general operating budgets. Driving damaged vehicles, or using faulty equipment, further increases risks to employees.


While kidnapping incidents are more rare than medical evacuation or political violence events, the effect can be traumatizing and even catastrophic for an employee and an organization’s reputation. “Express kidnappings,” where aid workers are driven to an ATM and ordered to take out large amounts of cash for their kidnapper, are increasingly common in many countries.

There are relatively easy steps NGOs can take to help reduce these risks and fulfil duty of care obligations. These include written policies and procedures, training, and risk management plans.

For example, organizations need to have a comprehensive set of policies and procedures regarding overseas operations and communication with headquarters. This can include requiring employees to fill out weekly or daily situation reports for high-risk areas.

Training to ensure compliance with policies are critical and must be continuously reinforced to ensure they are routine. Additional training is available from organizations like Risk Incorporated to educate employees on how to best operate in high-risk markets. By requiring employees to take these and other training classes to prevent and deal with kidnapping, political violence and terrorist acts, NGOs demonstrate duty of care. This is important in and of itself. It is also critical if an event in the field triggers a lawsuit.

Organizations also need risk management plans that involve and include security, communications, HR and other relevant departments and operations. A proper risk management plan identifies all possible contingencies, including the types of incidents described above, and outlines the organizational response, including the communication plan. An important part of any such plan is proper insurance. An NGO will have multiple policies that tie with different incident types and needs to know which plan to trigger in case of an event.

Additionally, many NGOs renew insurance policies annually without analyzing them against current operating processed and conditions. NGOs should regularly review their policies to determine if they meet current needs and fulfill duty of care.

Aid groups increasingly understand how comprehensive duty of care is. But there is still a long way to go to catch up with the “new normal” of increased instability and risk. Let’s hope the World Humanitarian Summit is the first of many global gatherings to shine a light on how taking care of employees helps them, organizations and — more importantly — the vulnerable and suffering people they assist.  

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Jennifer Amend

    Jennifer Amend is commercial lines manager at Clements Worldwide. She is a certified insurance counselor.