Tuesday, September 18, 2007

You Ain't Going to Learn What You Don't Want to Know

I like Grateful Dead music. I’m not a rabid fan, or Dead Head as they liked to be called. I’ve just found that if you take time to listen to some of the band’s song lyrics, you’ll often hear some very profound and wise things. Take the title of this post. “You ain’t going to learn what you don’t want to know.” It comes from a song called Black Throated Wind. I’ll get to how these lyrics relate to humanitarian security in a minute or two, but we first need to start with a little history lesson.

NGO Security - The Next Generation

Up until the late 1990s, 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 incidents 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?

This 50 or so years of successfully using the strategy of acceptance is what I call the first generation of humanitarian security. Not a whole lot of thought was given to systematic and standardized security practices, and mostly a “do unto others” approach was used.

The second generation of humanitarian security kicked off in the late 1990s with a growing realization that a Golden Rule strategy didn’t always work. This led to a series of standardized “best practices,” security units being formed in a number of larger NGOs, manuals being written and passed out, policies and procedures developed and implemented, and safety and security courses offered internally and by third parties.

Ten years have passed since second generation humanitarian security theories and concepts came into being. They’ve been widely publicized, printed, and pontificated upon. And on a whole the community feels pretty good about its efforts. Let’s give ourselves a pat on the back for addressing this whole problem of security. We’ve got it figured out.

But do we really? Change is inevitable and I would argue that we are entering a third generation of humanitarian security. One where our tidy little second generation approaches may be turned upside down thanks to three looming factors: The Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism, Greater Criminal Threats, and Increased Exposure to Litigation.

Let me briefly explain.

The Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism

Many people say that the world changed on September 11. But for the humanitarian community, there are two other dates that likely hold greater importance. October 7, 2001 and March 20, 2003. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the subsequent invasion of Iraq, and the days and events that followed have given rise to a growing Islamic Fundamentalist movement. One that is having a significant impact on Western humanitarian efforts in various regions.

It doesn’t take a degree in political science, sociology or anthropology to understand some of the reasons why there is so much friction between the West and the Islamic world. Non-existent and poor U.S. government and military planning for reconstruction efforts, high civilian casualty rates, and strident, often antagonistic U.S. government policies and rhetoric have created a polarized and volatile international climate.

Unfortunately, humanitarian organizations have been caught in the fallout of this global, ideological conflict. Consider some of what we are facing:

- Local perceptions that NGOs are tools of the U.S. and other Western governments
- Local beliefs that efforts by NGOs to provide meaningful and sustainable programs have failed
- Clashes between Islamic religious values and certain types of humanitarian programming
- An increased number of faith-based, Christian humanitarian efforts (sometimes in conflict with local religious values)
- Growth of self-sufficient humanitarian efforts by religious and/or political groups (e.g. madrasahs, Hezbollah in Lebanon, etc.)

In countries where Islamic fundamentalism is spreading, it is becoming all too common to encounter increased cultural hostility, direct targeting of Western NGO staff and programs, and a decreased ability to provide humanitarian aid and assistance.

Greater Criminal Threats

Over the past ten or so years, the humanitarian community has greatly expanded. With a sincere desire to help the less fortunate and a low barrier to entry, small NGOs entering the humanitarian space have proliferated while medium-sized and large organizations have grown in size and scope.

In terms of simple economics, more aid workers and NGOs means a larger potential victim pool for criminal elements.

This situation is further aggravated by two other factors. (1) An increased number of soft targets due to NGOs with ineffective or non-existent security programs; whether caused by ignorance, lack of funding, poor implementation, or other management priorities. (2) Organizations rewarding criminal behavior by paying ransoms, turning a blind eye toward corruption, and making deals with criminal elements so aid and development activities can continue unhindered.

The bottom line, increasingly Western NGOs are being viewed by criminal and anti-government political groups as a low-risk and reliable source of income.

Increased Exposure to Litigation

It’s easy to focus on external threats and not pay attention to risks within an organization. Bombs, bullets, bugs (that pass on diseases), and the like, are all very tangible, external threats that can be mitigated through commonly accepted safety and security practices.

However from an internal perspective, I believe litigation related to security incidents is an emerging and overlooked threat that has the potential to cause much more significant impact than most external threats, even combined.

Up until the present, there have been few cases where organizations have been forced to deal with lawsuits where a death or an injury was the result of some negligence on the organization’s part. Perhaps the NGO didn’t provide adequate security training or there were gaps in policies and procedures that allowed the incident to occur. These lawsuits have typically been settled out of court with minimal publicity (negative press is comparable to an exploding car bomb for most NGOs).

Over the years, humanitarian organizations have benefited from a “halo” effect. Since they are actively engaged in good deeds, it wouldn’t seem right to sue an NGO if something bad happened. It’s unknown how long this halo effect will last, especially among large NGOs who have increasingly turned into big businesses with deep pockets. It may be instructive to look at the medical industry, where in the fairly recent past no one would ever think of suing a doctor. Today, thanks to a few large dollar settlements, specialized lawyers, and calls for greater physician accountability, malpractice has almost turned into an industry of its own.

The West has developed into a very litigious society where problems are solved with attorneys and suffering is eased with cash. I have to wonder what will happen when national staff members realize they have an opportunity to play a “lawyer card.” If this option becomes fully understood and used, the impact could be substantial.

Evolve or Die

Since becoming involved with the humanitarian community, one thing that has always bothered me is the seeming lack of evolution in the security sector that I work in. The practice of humanitarian security is in its infancy. Normally in emerging fields you see a lot of innovation, sharing of information, and critical self examination of philosophies, principles and methods. In my opinion, this doesn’t seem to be happening very much. In fact, there seems to be a fair amount of stagnation. The same ideas and words are rehashed, regurgitated and repackaged with few attempts made to innovate, think outside the box, and evolve based on what’s happening in the world around us.

I’m not dismissing the efforts or usefulness of second generation humanitarian security concepts and approaches. Far from it. They served, and continue to serve, an important role in raising the awareness of the humanitarian community to security issues and providing a foundation that can easily be understood and applied.

The question that I have, is whether second generation humanitarian security doctrine and tenets effectively deal with the three threats I’ve described above. I personally don’t think so, and believe it’s time to start retooling and evolving our trade into a third generation collection of practices. That may be hard though, because you ain’t going to learn what you don’t want to know.

Evolve or die is a strong metaphor. But in this case I also mean it in the literal sense. If humanitarian security at both the practitioner and senior management levels does not evolve in the coming years, I strongly believe there will be people and programs that needlessly die.


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