What to know before you go to a conflict zone

Keeping aid workers safe is a top priority for international development groups around the globe, but especially in fragile and conflict-ridden states. Above, a Red Cross staff member sits with a boy during a food distribution activity in Pakistan. Photo by: ICRC / Muhammad, N. / CC BY-SA

Increasingly, aid workers are providing humanitarian and development assistance in some of the most dangerous locations on Earth. Whether it’s Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and now Syria, working in a conflict zone provides a unique set of challenges, including risk to your safety and well-being.

If you work full-time for a large aid organization, chances are your employer takes the security of personnel very seriously and has extensive plans and measures in place to combat potential risks. But what if you are being hired as an independent contractor or are considering a job from a company that isn’t as experienced working in a hazardous location? How can you assess their safety measures to decide if the assignment is worth the risk?

Here are nine questions you should ask before accepting an assignment in a conflict zone.

1. Does the organization have a local field office?

If you are doing short-term assistance — such as helping do reconnaissance for a proposal, evaluating another group’s programs or delivering trainings — the organization may not have a field office. If it doesn’t, there will likely be little support or security in place for you on the ground.

If there is no local support, you will need to be prepared to handle any potential emergencies on your own. Make sure you register with your local embassy before arriving in country and know its location.

2. How long has the organization been working in the country?

One of the most effective ways for an organization to keep their aid workers safe is to build strong ties with the local community. In many parts of the world it’s difficult for beneficiaries to discern between military forces and aid workers, or they may view them as one in the same. As the community gets to know the organization and their workers (and the good work they are doing), they will feel more comfortable and often more protective of its people, reducing the risk of threat.

Additionally, more time in-country means the organization likely has a well-honed security protocol in place.

3. Where will your accommodations be? Is there a guest house you can stay in? Is it on the same compound as the office?

In many conflict zones, aid and development workers live in a compound that contains a guest house and office space all in one location to reduce the risk of traveling between two locations each day. But if you are flying in as a short-term consultant, the organization may not have space for you in the guest house and may instead put you up in a hotel. You should do your due diligence on the hotels to make sure you are comfortable with the security it provides and ask how you will be transported between your accommodations and the office.

4. How does the organization handle transportation? Armored vehicles? Marked cars? Convoy?

The U.N. is famous for their well-marked vehicles, typically white SUVs with U.N. emblazoned on the side. This is a part of their security protocol – a signal to the community that they are an impartial party only there to help – that they hope will thwart attacks. However, such prominent marking can also act as a big, blinking light advertising there are expats on board. Most NGOs and consulting firms take a less visible approach, procuring older, used vehicles that will not call as much attention. Sometimes they are armored, sometimes not. Often they will travel in convoy, but many smaller projects do not have the budget to do this. It is worth inquiring about these details to confirm you are comfortable with your organization’s approach.

5. Will the organization provide for medical evacuation insurance?

The employer should provide for medevac insurance in case of a medical emergency that cannot be treated at a local hospital, which is the case in most conflict zones. Medevac insurance will cover a medical evacuation to a nearby country with hospitals that will be able to provide adequate care. Without this insurance you could be looking at $100,000 in medical bills — if you are able to get air lifted at all.

Most large organizations provide this as a matter of course for their staff but sometimes overlook it for consultants. Make sure you negotiate this as part of your package.

6. What is their ransom policy?

Most aid organization don’t provide for ransom or ransom insurance. Though this may seem like an oversight, it’s actually an intentional security measure. If aid organizations were known for paying hefty ransom fees, it would only provide to encourage kidnappings. Organizations are prudent however to request “proof of life” information from their staff and consultants in the unlikely case of a kidnapping. These questions are similar to ones you might set up to recover a password: personal details only you could answer. They should also collect emergency contact details. If they don’t ask, make sure to provide them anyway.

7. Does the organization have an external security firm or full-time security staff?

The level of security an aid organization has can vary wildly from a full-time professional security firm to a couple of local guards. Not every situation warrants a security firm, and hiring local security personnel can be a worthwhile safety measure. You will want to confirm that whatever security personnel they have in place will be available to assist you for your assignment.

8. Does the assignment offer danger pay? When does it kick in?

Many organizations pay a premium to travel to conflict zones, often called danger or hazard pay, which is typically a fixed percentage paid on top of the day rate or salary. However, some donors require that you be in- country a certain number of days before it kicks in. Check in on these requirements and clear up any confusion around eligibility before you accept an assignment and negotiate rates.

9. How do they vet local staff? Do they conduct background checks?

Another effective security measure many aid organizations employ is to hire locally whenever possible. Though it does happen, communities are less likely to attack their own, so an office that appears to consist mostly of local professionals is less vulnerable to attacks.

However, organizations do need to be careful that they are not hiring would-be attackers. Conducting formal background checks is not practical in some countries, but many organizations take a more informal approach, such as only hiring from referrals or other aid agencies. If you are concerned about their local hiring practices, ask them how they vet their local employees.

Read more:

Do you have any other advice for someone considering an assignment in a conflict zone? What precautions do you take? Please share your comments below. If you have any questions about managing your career in global development please tweet me @DevexCareers.

About the author

  • Warren kate 1

    Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.

Join the Discussion