Why NGO Security?
Up until the late 1990’s, if you did international humanitarian work, the rules of the game were pretty simple. Do good deeds and bad stuff wouldn’t happen to you. Sure there were occasional incidences of aid workers unintentionally driving over land mines, accidentally getting caught in the crossfire between opposing forces, or being assaulted or robbed, but these were exceptions and not the rule.
The humanitarian community operated under the assumption that providing goods and services to those in need and treating people with the respect they deserved substantially reduced the risk of staff members suffering harm. This makes perfect sense. Why would anyone want to hurt you if you were helping him or his neighbors?
After 50 or so years of successfully using this strategy of acceptance, humanitarian organizations (commonly called NGOs, for Non Governmental Organizations) started to notice that in certain places and situations things weren’t working like they used to. If you were associated with an aid or relief organization you might actually be at a greater risk of being robbed, attacked, kidnapped or even killed. You were still doing the same good deeds, but almost overnight it seemed like someone painted a bulls-eye on your back while you were sleeping.
There is lots of speculation why this happened, but in general you can boil it down to three factors - all conveniently starting with the letter “A.” These factors, either singly or combined, are responsible for escalating NGO security risks in different parts of the world. They include:
Affiliation - Let’s say a large, powerful country and its allies decide to invade a couple of smaller countries on the pretext of stopping terrorism (sound familiar?). This enrages many ethnic and religious groups, who view the invasions as a direct attack on their culture and faith. The policies and actions of the country’s government cause it to lose the support of a number of its friends and acquaintances. At best, anyone or any organization that’s believed to be affiliated with the large, powerful country is not trusted. At worst, affiliated individuals and organizations are targeted and attacked. Whether an affiliation really exists and good deeds not withstanding.
Activism – In the good old days, NGOs loudly proclaimed their neutrality (many still do). They were only there to help people in need and didn’t have a political agenda. However, it’s rather naïve to think you can be impartial all of the time, especially when you’re operating in places where genocide is occurring and innocent lives are being taken left and right. In recent years NGOs realized that in some cases, by not taking a stand, they actually were part of the problem. And a certain amount of activism and advocacy started creeping into day-to-day operations. For the big NGOs it wasn’t anything too radical, but it was a shift away from pure neutrality. For the most part, NGOs have been justified in taking this path. But they didn’t fully realize that whenever you engage in activism and advocacy you’re bound to make some people angry and there might be repercussions.
Affluence – The last factor is the “shiny, white Landcruiser” syndrome. As more money entered the coffers of large NGOs, they became more affluent. And depending on the organization, sometimes that affluence became very conspicuous. Pull yourself away from your PC and Internet connection for a minute and imagine you’re in a developing country, walking barefooted down a dusty road toward the market, pushing a cart with a few meager vegetables you hope to sell in order to feed your family. Suddenly a brand new, shiny white Landcruiser roars by. It belongs to a large NGO. What do you feel? Resentment, perhaps? Especially when the two side mirrors stolen from that SUV could bring enough money to feed your starving family for months. Or what about stealing the whole Landcruiser or maybe abducting an NGO staff member? Those rich, Western NGOs can certainly afford it.
Starting in the late 1990s and early 2000s, big NGOs (CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Mercy Corps, and Save the Children, to name a few) realized that things had changed and saw the need for paying more attention to security issues. Security units were created within larger NGOs, staff was hired, training was developed, and policies and procedures were put in place. All in an attempt to reduce the risk of the organization or its staff experiencing harm or loss from a host of new and existing threats.
And that leads us to this Blog. The practice of NGO security is still very much in its infancy and formative years. The purpose of this Blog is to inform, educate and engage people on topics and issues relating to humanitarian organization security. Future posts will cover NGO security incidents, provide commentary on events that impact field security, and offer practical advice to anyone who is taking on security responsibilities for his or her organization.
But before we officially get started, a little more of a foundation needs to be laid. And the next brick to be put in place is learning about the people who do NGO security. Watch for that post in the coming days.