Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Whats and Whos of NGO Security

So just what do NGO security people do? To start off with, they don’t defuse bombs, pack Glocks, rescue hostages or provide bodyguard services to an organization's staff members. Instead, you’ll find them:
  • Conducting security assessments (visiting field offices and other facilities, reviewing safety and security conditions)
  • Performing analyses of environmental, political, social and economic conditions that could impact safety and security
  • Offering recommendations on enhancing safety and security
  • Writing security reports, policies and procedures
  • Training organization staff members in safety and security practices
You probably noticed both safety and security were mentioned, and it’s important to make a distinction between the two terms. Safety refers to unintentional events that can cause harm or loss (like natural disasters, accidents, or disease outbreaks) while security deals with intentional acts that may cause harm or loss (such as crime, terrorism, or conflict). In most cases, NGO security practitioners deal with both safety and security issues.

NGO security people typically have a wide range of skill sets, including threat assessment, physical and personal security, fire and electrical safety, first aid, and stress management. You may also run into people with specialized experience in UXO (UneXploded Ordnance = land mines and things that goes boom), refugee camp security, public health, radio and satellite communications, and other rather esoteric disciplines.

While all of this might sound like stereotypical guy-stuff, there are actually a fair number of women in the NGO security field; and they are quite good at what they do. When it comes to humanitarian security, a woman’s sensitivity and ability to build rapport can be extremely valuable.

Most NGO security people held other positions in humanitarian organizations and gravitated to security out of interest or because of newly assigned responsibilities. Occasionally you’ll run into someone with security experience gained from the military or law enforcement. But a former life as a cop or soldier doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll cut it doing NGO security work. There’s a mindset shift that’s required in not relying on weapons, force and offensive tactics; some people find this a difficult transition to make. (At the upper-end, private security and military companies also tend to pay up to 3 to 4 times what you can earn doing NGO security, which limits the appeal of the non-profit world to some people.)

From an employment standpoint, NGO security practitioners typically fall into several different categories:
  • Headquarters staff – Large NGOs will often have a security group, based out of their headquarters, with full-time staff hired to handle various safety and security issues in international offices. These security groups tend to be very small, with only a handful of overworked people. The majority of NGOs don’t have the funding for dedicated security staff, which unfortunately, sometimes can put them at greater levels of risk.
  • Security advisors – Security advisors are consultants hired by NGOs for short-term engagements, usually to perform an assessment, provide training, or some other specialized task. For security assessments, that means usually 10 days to 3-weeks in-country (depending on the size of the operating area and scope of the issues). The humanitarian security world is fairly small, so who you know and your reputation go a long way in keeping gainfully employed.
  • Security officers – Security officers are used by NGOs for longer-term assignments, generally in the one-month to one-year range (and sometimes longer). They’re responsible for the same types of duties as security advisors, but usually go beyond in building and implementing comprehensive safety and security programs for an organization (security advisors and officers generally have the same skill sets, but advisors tend to like working the shorter gigs). Security officers typically end up in areas where there is ongoing conflict or other conditions that require a dedicated and experienced person, available 24/7.
  • Security focal persons – An up and coming trend in NGO security is to assign various security responsibilities to national and local staff members in field offices – designating them as security focal persons (or focal points). This makes a whole lot of sense, because when properly trained, a local staff person who lives and works in a country can often be more effective than an ex-pat who is only on the ground for a few weeks. Capacity building is a good thing. While the security focal person concept is a step in the right direction, there are a number of issues such as training, compensation and established roles and responsibilities that the big NGOs are still working through to get focal person programs off the ground.
If you’re headquarters staff or a security advisor/officer, you can pretty much end up anywhere in the world, from capital cities to out in the bush. Conditions can be very austere and extremely risky, with civil unrest or open warfare going on all around you. Or you might find yourself in a safe, air-conditioned hotel with a good restaurant and CNN and BBC on the television. Assignments totally depend on what an NGO needs, and whether you’re willing and available when something comes up.

If you think all of this sounds very exciting and romantic, at times it can be, and there’s certainly a fair amount of satisfaction in doing your thing to help keep people safe and ensure humanitarian programs stay up and running. However there are also the realities of endless hours on crowded planes (coach section, mind you), getting sick from food, water or other nasty things, never having enough time to do as thorough of a job as you’d like, ending up in some very challenging and stressful environments, and sometimes feeling like you're the Lone Ranger sent in to save the day.

That’s a brief snapshot of the whats and whos of NGO security. However, we’ve got one more brick to lay in our foundation before we move on to exclusively posting about the practice of NGO security. That brick is why this Blog has popped into existence and what you can expect from it in the future. Watch for that post in the next few days.


Post a Comment

<< Home