Will tech find a footing within aid worker security culture?

A drone used for search and rescue operations in Nepal after a 7.8 earthquake hit the country in April 2015. How does technology fit in the aid worker security culture? Photo by: U.K. Department for International Development / CC BY

Building greater efficiency holds a place of prominence on Timothy McAtee’s to-do list, while several tech innovations top his wish list.

The deputy director of global security at International Medical Corps — who just happens to be one of the “most tech-challenged people you’ll ever meet,” he told Devex — has been leading a personal crusade to marry new technology with IMC’s aid worker security management for the past four years.

Robots might be unrealistic for now, he said jokingly, but McAtee is currently working on a more formal proposal for a small fleet of drones for use in the provision of humanitarian aid. Under his leadership, IMC has already launched a smartphone app to more efficiently report security incidents — information that can be pulled into their revamped database and combined with other data to create detailed, “military quality” maps.

McAtee started by inviting IT and an underutilized in-house geographic information system team into security efforts for the organization, which delivers health care services and training in 36 countries — some of which top the list of most dangerous contexts for aid workers.

“Going through this process has been both comical and educational,” he said.

Such a heavy emphasis on — and such enthusiasm for — technology’s role in security isn’t shared by all international NGOs operating in fragile contexts. Several INGO security directors and others in the sector swatted the topic away and focused instead on well-known strategies like face-to-face interaction in conversations with Devex. Other attempts at talking tech led to the brick wall of a question: “With what money?”

In some contexts, tech will simply never be the answer to increased aid worker security or efficiency, some in the industry told Devex. But in other situations, security leaders might need to make more room for tech’s potential.

Still too far removed?

“Tech is not the solution. Is it going to get us closer to people so they understand us better?” asked Anthony Dalziel, head of the security and crisis management support unit at the International Committee of the Red Cross. “If you’re behind a bunker, you turn to tech because you want proximity to people. But we need to be creating a face-to-face connection with all parties to conflict.”

Dalziel is far from alone in this idea. Accusations abound that the tech sector — those working on IT solutions or mobile apps, for example — are still often too far removed from contexts like Afghanistan and, perhaps fairly, that tech will never be a replacement for the core of what keeps aid workers safe today: Proximity to the local community, a real and practiced sense of impartiality and solid programming.

“There’s a very, very practical piece to what we do,” explained Basile Pissalidis, director of security at InterAction. “There’s a sense of, ‘How is that [piece of tech] going to help me talk to [the Islamic State group]?’ I understand that tech and apps have moved us in certain direction in this environment, but I have not been able to see how it’s going to be the silver bullet.”

Maybe the sentiment that a conflict setting “is not a place to try out new things” holds true — especially from a security perspective, Pranav Shetty, senior technical coordinator for emergency response for IMC, recently told Devex.

But what if, as IMC’s McAtee suggested, every aid worker could be identified by their cellphone, and if drones and satellites could capture imagery of what’s happening in real time? And what if that data could be stitched together in shared databases so humanitarian agencies and governments could instantly see who is doing what, a question posed by Devex Editor-in-Chief Raj Kumar in a blog earlier this year.

Progress like that most likely involves both risk and tech champions within security teams, as well as an understanding that tech won’t find a home in every security effort, InterAction’s Pissalidis said.

“There are areas where we can, and to a degree have, used improvements in technology to help, but the potential is conflated,” he added.

When tech isn’t the answer

When you’re talking about tech and security, the issue very quickly comes down to the budget, according to Timothy Anstis, who has worked in security for more than 20 years and was most recently a security adviser for Oxfam in Yemen.

“At the country level, I would make a guesstimate that 99 percent of security advisers or managers — whatever title at the expatriate level — do not have a direct budget line,” he said.

“It’s beg borrow and steal.”

Potential tech money is buried in someone else’s budget or doesn’t have a specific code; if you don’t have it, it depends on the context in which you’re working before you go after tech funding, he said.

Quick tips on inviting tech into security efforts, according to McAtee

1. Identify what you want to accomplish and what tech tools you want to apply to do it.

2. Do enough research to show how that technology will save the organization money, cut down on time or create efficiency. Be ready to make the business case — will it pay itself off in one to two years?

3.Then ask how this platform might also benefit other departments within the organization or other facets of business, not just the security department.

It’s still difficult for IMC’s McAtee to secure funding for proper security trainings sometimes, let alone “tech-toys,” he said.

“It had less to do with actual technology … at first,” McAtee said.

But his team has succeeded by identifying the technology they wanted to adopt and doing enough ground work to show how those IT solutions would save the organization money, cut down time and create a more efficient department.  

In certain contexts, it’s not about money, or about the need to recruit for more technical expertise, or about an unfair resistance to new tech. In posts around the world, the first question remains: Is the actual capability there and does tech make sense?

Take road attacks, which accounted for one-third of all aid worker deaths in 2013, but have seen few advances in security measures, according to the Aid Worker Security Report 2014.

In Afghanistan, where road attacks are prevalent, it’s possible to pay to equip all your vehicles with tracking devices so you know where your staff are at all times, explained Anstis. But there are still so many setbacks to embracing the simplest forms of tech, he warned.

While tracking devices can be helpful, embracing other simple technology — such as satellite phones — has proved challenging. A lot of national staff who are front-line facilitators in places like Afghanistan don't like to be seen with a satellite phone at roadblocks because it identifies them as working for an international aid agency, Anstis pointed out.

In Yemen, where Anstis estimates that about 70 percent of international aid groups operate via remote management, few nongovernmental organizations in-country even have a radio, let alone any more sophisticated technology due to armed groups controlling port areas and strict embargoes on goods.

Where to involve tech

“The safest place is under the bed with teddy,” said Maurice McQuillan, global security manager at Catholic Relief Services. “But the reality is that it’s not our job to stop people from doing things.”

Instead it’s important to develop a security culture where managers are not looking to a security coordinator to deal with security issues, but are managing security because it’s an integral part of their job as well, he said.

That, according to IMC’s McAtee, creates an opportunity to use tech to build efficiency.

McAtee led a process at IMC to transform the organization’s incident management system, which was labor intensive and outdated. The prior system involved calculating the total financial loss of all security incidents by “writing all the numbers down on notebook paper and using a calculator,” he said.

Frustrated by the system, he went to the vice president of finance and the IT director to tell them they must be able to use technology to make it faster and better.

When the IT project manager asked him if there was anything else he wanted, “that’s when I said I want to be the first NGO to have a security smartphone app,” McAtee said.

A few months later IMC hosted a hackathon at the 2014 Shift Conference in Croatia, which resulted in a mobile app that’s allowed IMC to “save hundreds of man hours every year,” he said.

The app addresses a common problem — that often organizations don’t have the luxury of having a security professional conducting the security risk assessment in the field. The app allows whoever is in charge of the assessment, which sometimes falls to the logistics lead, for example, to go through a short, simple risk assessment template.

“You can scroll through and push a few buttons, and that gathers enough for us to start putting together an assessment,” he said.  

But McAtee doesn’t just want to have IMC using tech in security management, he wants to make sure it increases efficiency. Aside from finalizing his drone proposal, another longer term goal is to bring an IT professional into IMC’s security department permanently.

The question, then, is perhaps not whether there’s room for both tried and true models of security as well as advanced mapping — both are already happening. Instead it’s whether leaders in the security sector can be convinced that tech will one day be seamlessly integrated in everything from risk assessments to tracking the movement of aid workers.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.