Minimizing aid worker risk in dangerous environments

A truck drives by a damaged vehicle at the site where aid workers were abducted in Mauritania in 2009. Photo by: REUTERS / Rafael Marchante

BARCELONA — “Get on your knees, put your hands above your head, and don’t move.” These are words no one ever hopes to hear directed at them. However, the nature of development and aid work means that staff are frequently operating in unfamiliar and high-risk environments that could see that safety jeopardized.

“We want our staff to live and to outlive the crisis that they’re in.”

— Nasra Ismail, deputy director, Somalia NGO Consortium

While no amount of aid worker training could have prevented the recent tragedy where 45 aid workers died on a flight to Nairobi, Kenya, there are skills individuals can acquire that can help them avoid other potentially dangerous situations such as carjackings, muggings, roadside bombs, kidnappings, or assaults.

In 2018, 510 aid workers were reported killed, kidnapped, or arrested. So far this year, an aid worker was abducted and killed in Syria, others were threatened in Yemen, and South Sudan continues to be the deadliest place for aid workers.

Courses, such as hostile environment awareness training and basic security training, can help mitigate some of the risks taken by aid workers working in dangerous locations. Organizations such as Plan International and Oxfam are among those that send staff to a two- to five-day course as part of their onboarding.

“We have a security induction process and an online basic security management awareness training course, which are mandatory for anyone traveling anywhere,” said Rod Slip, global security adviser with Oxfam, who explained that the level of training for individuals correlates to the level of perceived risk in the country where they will be working.

Hostile environment courses vary, but usually cover the basic security measures to consider when operating overseas — such as preparation and planning, accommodation and airports, risk evaluation and mitigation. They also address first aid, sexual assault, hostage kidnap survival, bomb, mines, and survival on a more practical level. Realistic scenarios challenge participants to transform the theory into a practical response and are designed to increase confidence in a tense situation.

“You have a whole bunch of things coming at you in the simulation exercises and if those things actually happen to you, oh boy you’re really unlucky,” said Slip, adding that simulations force action with no time to think or process — and a chance to learn from a situation where there are no real consequences. “It's good, it’s a wake-up, it’s a very strong cup of coffee if you like.”

“What we want people to get out of the training is to understand that there are a whole variety of possible scenarios and that making a decision and acting on that decision is probably going to be better than making no decision at all,” he said.

Journalists, those working in oil, pharmaceuticals, and construction are others who also take the courses. But some question the value of the training — offered in Ireland, the United States, and Canada — taking place at locations so different from where the participants will actually be working.

It's important to receive training in the local country context, said Nasra Ismail, deputy director at the Somalia NGO Consortium and former Somalia country director at Oxfam International. “Get more security training at the right level happening on the ground, not in the Netherlands, not in the U.K., not in the U.S., because it is the context that’s going to tell you how to survive it.”

An organization’s security policies and procedures should also be context-specific, explained Reginold Patterson, regional head of security at the Norwegian Refugee Council.

“The security procedures in one country might not fit another country, or what is used in one province might not work in another. Therefore all these policies and procedures should be drawn out of a risk analysis that is done in the field,” Patterson said in an email.

But training also needs to reach in-country staff, said Ismail, noting that often local staff don’t receive the same health and security benefits as international staff.

“It’s not by design, but it is where we are today. It’s not about money, it’s about values and you can’t put money on a life, especially in a place like Somalia where everybody is exposed to the same security problems, but the locals almost always pay the price,” Ismail said. “If you have different values for different people then you can’t quite say that you have a humanitarian principle.”

In addition to being the right thing to do ethically, Slip said it was important on a practical level to ensure staff traveling and working together in the field should have received the same or similar training, since many techniques involve them working in sync to have a good outcome.

Patterson said that hostile environment awareness training and other security courses not only mitigate risk for the individuals who have completed the courses but that there can be benefits for other staff as well. For example, if a potentially hostile situation is handled unsuccessfully, it may result in physical, financial, or even reputational damage, which could have implications for the organization’s operations and the services delivered to beneficiaries.

“Besides our staff, these policies and procedures also positively affect the safety and health of beneficiaries and partners, and help to keep our programs operating well,” Patterson said.

In addition to training, the security officers at aid organizations suggest having contingency plans, having a designated person paying attention to security on each trip, and researching accommodation before visiting a potentially hostile environment.

“We want our staff to live and to outlive the crisis that they’re in,” Ismail said.

About the author

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    Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is an Editorial Associate and Reporter at Devex. She has a background in journalism and communications, and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York and London. She is now based in Barcelona and produces multimedia editorial content for digital content series and media partnerships.