Sunday, October 30, 2011

CDC Yellow Book

Every two years, the Centers for Disease Control publishes a definitive guide to international travel health known as the Yellow Book (for the color of its cover). It's an indispensable reference for understanding health risks all over the world. The 2012 edition is now out. To get a hard copy or use the online version, follow this link.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Inside Jobs

The Telegraph is reporting that the two Danish Refugee Council aid workers recently kidnapped in Somalia, fell victim to their own security staff. The abduction occurred within 48 hours of the pair's arrival in Somalia, and apparently was facilitated by members of the armed guard force contracted by the humanitarian organization. Without having specific details, any analysis of this incident would be speculative at best. However if the news report is accurate , it does highlight a seldom talked about factor in national or international aid worker abductions. That is there is often an insider within the organization that is somehow involved with the kidnapping. Whether the motivation is political, monetary, or simple revenge, some set of circumstances cause a staff member to act against a colleague.

Unfortunately, NGOs don't seem to be very good at picking up on warning signals prior to an inside job. For that matter neither do corporations, as criminal activities by insiders are far more common than those committed by people outside a company. It probably comes down to a bit of denial, thinking someone's not going to bite the hand that feeds him or her. But in many cases, that's just what happens.

Obviously, properly vetting staff members is a useful preventative measure. After that though, managers need to have a high degree of sensitivity to their employees and be mindful of behaviors that could suggest a staff member might act against the organization. Unfortunately, this isn't widely taught within the humanitarian community. (A good starting point for self-study is Gavin de Becker's book "The Gift of Fear," which offers some basic behavioral insights to potentially violent internal threats.) Another detriment to preventing these types of incidents has been a lack of willingness for organizations to share information about precursors that lead up to an incident. While I appreciate the potential negative PR and legal exposure implications of disclosure, not understanding the events that led to an incident and not applying lessons-learned, almost certainly guarantees the incident will occur again - to your own organization or another.

Inside jobs are tough. But the first step in dealing with them is to acknowledge they occur. With that and the local context in mind, you can start crafting ways to mitigate the risk; whether it's abduction, theft, or workplace violence.

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Stephen Pinker's Small Ray of Sunshine

I recently attended a conference held at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation where its staff were described as "impatient optimists." That's quite a contrast to the "studied pessimist" role many in the NGO security business take on. Make no mistake, there are days when being a humanitarian safety and security practitioner is rather depressing. Seemingly endless bombings, abductions, vehicle accidents, and natural disasters don't tend to give one warm fuzzies.

But you know, I recently picked up a copy of Stephen Pinker's lengthy new book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined." And I'm feeling a bit hopeful. Although the media may lead you to think otherwise, Pinker states that historically we are living in the most peaceful period our species has ever known.

With all the conflict in the world, that seems hard to believe. But his thesis isn't just opinion or idle speculation. Pinker is a well-known and written Harvard psychology professor and he makes a very compelling case that there has been a dramatic, long-term reduction in family violence, murder, racism, rape, and war deaths. He backs up the claim with statistics, charts, maps, peer-reviewed research by other academics, and a variety of historical references (including some fairly gruesome tales of days-gone-by violence and inhumanity).

Pinker's basic hypothesis is as we become smarter, our capacity for violence decreases and life becomes more precious (education-focused NGOs will take heart in that message). However since our brains tend to fixate on accounts of mayhem and destruction, we don't see the decreasing violence and believe the world is getting worse. Of course frequently dealing with safety and security incidents and staying on top of potential threats seems to amplify that belief.

I haven't finished the book yet, but so far Pinker gives me guarded hope that as a whole humanity is heading in a positive direction. And that's a good feeling after a day of digesting the latest news from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Maybe the Gates Foundation is on to something about being optimists.

Check out what Pinker has to say in a conversation called A History of Violence at (one of my favorite sites for interviews with and commentaries by some of today's leading thinkers).


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Thailand Flood Resources

The Google Crisis Response project has a very useful collection of maps and information resources devoted to flooding that's currently occurring in Thailand. If your organization is operating in the region, this is a great planning tool. (Tip - Save some time and effort by passing the link on to managers and colleagues who are asking you for general situation updates a little too often.)

I continue to be impressed with Google's work in the emergency area. For more on the project, check out a blog post from last month.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Interview: Robert Macpherson on Abductions

Robert "Bob" Macpherson is a well-known figure in the NGO security community. A retired U.S. Marine Corps Colonel, former director of CARE Internationals Safety and Security Unit, and current principal of Cosantoir Group, Bob has a remarkable amount of experience in the humanitarian space. One of his many areas of expertise is handling abductions. I caught up with Bob recently and he agreed to share some of his insights on kidnappings.

How common are abductions in humanitarian work?

Without a doubt, the frequency of abductions in the humanitarian community is increasing. However, because most abductions are never publicized and there are no central reporting mechanisms, it's difficult to fix exact numbers.

Which countries are currently the most risky for aid workers in terms of abductions?

Afghanistan, Somalia, Haiti, Mexico, and Colombia get the majority of attention. I don't include Pakistan because at this point I don't feel it's overly risky for international staff abductions; national staff is another story, though. There's a great deal of press when a Westerner is kidnapped there, mostly because of the highly publicized political tensions between the United States and Pakistan. I'd rate countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and other Latin American states more risky, even if they don't get as much attention. People tend to focus on Mexico, without realizing the extent of narco-crime that goes on in the rest of the region. It's only a matter of time before the NGO community will be confronted with criminal kidnapping incidents there.

Have aid worker abductions changed over the past five or so years?

I suspect depending on who you talk to, you'll get different answers. Some of my colleagues say that there are more politically related kidnaps. I disagree. In fact, I believe it's exactly the opposite. The problem is when an international aid worker is kidnapped, the media attention is extraordinary. And since many of these abductions occur in politically-charged, conflict zones, there is often political motivation. But it's the far more frequent abductions you don't hear about, that are on the increase. Kidnap for ransom of national staff members, without a doubt, is very much on the rise. I'm amazed at how tightly the NGO community keeps a lid on abductions of national staff members. To ensure there's no misunderstanding, I applaud that lack of transparency. I'm currently engaged with an organization that had a driver abducted. If it becomes a matter of record that the driver was returned and there was a ransom or some other remuneration involved, you can only imagine what will happen to every NGO driver in the region.

Have most of the incidents you've handled been crimes of opportunity or well-planned and targeted abductions?

An intuitive answer to this question is roughly 50-50. Typically, the ones that involved international staff and became notable in the press were well-planned. But even abductions that don't make CNN usually have some element of planning, whether well-planned or not. To give you an example. In Haiti, people would be abducted and the ransom asked would coincidentally match the exact amount in their bank account. Obviously, some collusion between criminals and bank employees was occurring. That seems like good planning to me. But regardless of whether an abduction is well-planned or not, in the more than 20 abductions I've handled, and virtually every kidnap my colleagues have dealt with, there is one common factor in all of them. That is the victim established a routine and pattern. And even if they were warned to vary the routine, they refused and then suffered the consequences.

Have you found that organizations deal with an abduction differently, depending on if it's an international, national, or local staff member?

You should never get an NGO to answer this question directly. However, there has to be a difference in the way kidnaps are handled depending if it's national and international staff. To be clear, this should be the case. In the simplest context, it is important and essential to remember that an international staff member will always go home. The national staff member and his/her family will remain in the same place from which the victim was abducted. There are nuances that are associated with this fact that have to be considered in a number of ways. A kidnap negotiation is obviously a delicate event. The procedure for a national staff member is very complex. It's not so much in the actual negotiation or the engagement of insurance company crisis response personnel. It's in the more subtle areas of family security.

Some readers may not know about kidnapping and ransom (K&R) insurance. Could you briefly explain what it is and how it works?

K&R insurance is a way for an organization to have a means of assistance if a staff member is kidnapped. People tend to look on this insurance as a way to pay ransom. That's not exactly true. What K&R insurance provides are the services of professionals to assist with the abduction, including engaging in negotiations. K&R premiums vary and are based on the number of staff covered, whether they are international or national, the countries being worked in, and the coverage amount ($3 million is a good number, but a broker may limit an organization or business to less). Small and medium sized humanitarian organizations often do not have K&R insurance (whether because they don't know it's available or they believe budgets won't allow for it). This can put an organization and its staff at a high level of risk if they are working in a country where abductions are not rare events.

What roles do the employing organization, the family, and government (host and country the staff member is a citizen of) play in working with a K&R response company? Who ends up making the decisions?

It's easier to answer this question based on circumstance. For instance, if the victim is an American citizen, the FBI will provide assistance. However, it's in the detail of "assistance" that things become delicate. The FBI, or a government representative from most Western nations, will not engage in negotiations. This means when phone calls and messages are being passed back and forth with the abductors, it's not the FBI who is actually involved in the negotiation. Without hesitation, they are present and provide remarkably beneficial advice. But the actual discussions are accomplished by others. With international staff these negotiations are generally handled by professional response personnel who are associated with K&R insurance providers. In the case of national staff, the discussions may be carried out by the individual's family. I find that each event is different in certain processes, and gravitate toward the best way to handle the negotiation. At times, a family member is simply too emotional to be able to provide negotiations. Consequently, the insurance company responder may be the person who handles it.

So back to our kidnapped American, or other citizen from a Western nation. That nation will most likely be involved in some manner with the response. If the victim is from an emerging country, the response team from the organization's insurance company will have a much more prominent role. Also, it's important to note that I have rarely seen an incident involving the kidnap of either a national or international staff member that did not have the element of extraordinary cooperation between all parties. As in every situation, things start off a bit slow but very quickly people come together to accomplish the goal returning the victim to his or her family.

If you could give humanitarian workers three pieces of advice for avoiding being abducted, what would they be?

1.Vary your routine. It doesn't have to be overly burdensome or continuous, but ensure that if anyone is watching you they are never able to establish that you travel the same road daily, shop in the same market on the same day of the week, attend some type of social event at the same time, etc. As simple as this sounds, it is the one measure that will keep a staff member as safe as possible from a kidnapping.

2. Be observant. Most people, in fact I believe all people, have an intuitive sense for danger. Living in a safe society tends to diminish this sense. But if you're in a complex environment, listen to that inner voice and pay attention to it. It's easy to disregard attentive caution because no one wants to appear to be overly cautious or become embarrassed about a hunch that proves wrong. You need to override those feelings instead of overriding your intuition.

It's interesting. I've found that when I talk about safeguards to international staff who are working in a complex environment and they have their children with them, I have their absolute attention. However, if I were to speak to the same people when their children weren't around to worry about, and gave them the same advice, they wouldn't be paying as much attention.

3. Recognize your uniqueness. I'm amazed at the number Americans who I have met over the years who have spent time in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico, or other high-risk environments who believe because of their tenure or ability to speak the language they can disregard many of the basics elements of personal security. This is simply not so. Particularly, in Middle Eastern nations, a foreigner is a foreigner and it begins and ends with that. The sad truth is that the majority of international staff kidnap cases I've been involved with have fallen into this category. People lived in the country for so long they began to believe they were immune to the same dangers as a consultant or someone who was newly arrived would face. In fact, this attitude made them more of a potential victim.

And if someone finds themselves abducted, what are your top three recommendations for getting through the ordeal?

Of course every incident is context dependent, but here are some general recommendations.

1. The first 24 hours are critical. The kidnappers are typically frightened themselves and can be volatile. Being quiet and cooperative is the best way to get through the event. Regardless of what you see and read – if you make a blind rush for freedom, in most cases it will not end well.

2. As soon as possible, attempt to establish your own routine. It may be something as simple as a bit of physical exercise, periods of quiet reflection, or anything that will help keep you calm.

3. Without being obtrusive, try to begin a very subtle dialogue with your kidnappers. Your goal is to attempt to humanize yourself as much as possible. The more you can engage with the abductors on a personal level, the more they begin to recognize you as an individual and consider their actions toward you. This takes time, but will happen. You'll find that some of the kidnappers will have nothing to do with you but there will be others who engage. Think about this and use it to your advantage.

Postscript: If you have additional interest in K&R insurance, check out a 2007 paper written by Meadow Clendenin for the Emory Law Journal. Lots of background on the history, nuts and bolts, and foreign policy implications of K&R insurance.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Afghanistan NATO Kill/Capture Map

The British newspaper The Guardian just published an excellent interactive map showing all publicized NATO kill/capture missions in Afghanistan. The data is taken from ISAF press releases and goes back to September 2009. Each province is shown with the number of insurgents killed and captured and how often missions occurred. The accompanying article has more detail on the data. If you do work in Afghanistan, you already know which areas tend to be more risky than others and the map isn't going to tell you anything new. What is does though, is give you a sense of the scope and range of these missions, which obviously have a military impact on the Taliban as well as a perceptual impact on non-combatant civilians.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

PMC/PSC Code of Conduct

Private Military Companies (PMCs)/Private Security Companies (PSCs) have gotten a bad rap over the years because of events in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unwarranted civilian deaths, sexual abuse, theft, and fraud have been extensively reported upon by the media. As is often the case, the actions of a few impact the many, even those whose conduct has been exemplary.

If you haven't been keeping up with the PMC/PSC world, the industry came to the conclusion it needed to do something about its image. In November 2010, the International Stability Operations Association (ISOA) announced a voluntary code of conduct designed to raise the ethics and operations standards of its members. Representatives from a number of large security firms were signatories to the code in Geneva, Switzerland. As of the first of this month, 211 companies worldwide have agreed to its terms. That's positive movement.

If your organization uses a PSC, you should check if the company has signed the code of conduct (a list of signatories and more information about the code is here). It makes sense for humanitarian organizations that use armed guards to support initiatives like this. However keep in mind that the code currently relies on companies to self-regulate themselves. ISOA is still working out the details on how violations will be dealt with. The alternative to self-policing is some form of internationally adopted legislation that regulates and monitors PMCs and PSCs. The United Nations Working Group on the use of Mercenaries as a means of Impeding the Exercise of the Right of People to Self-Determination (try turning that into an acronym) has been working on just that since 2005.

PMCs and PSCs are here to stay. If security companies can use a code of conduct to avoid incidents such as the2007 Blackwater Nisour Square shootings in Baghdad (and lesser human rights violations), that's great. If not, its likely public outcry will prompt government legislation and oversight. Time will tell...


Friday, October 07, 2011

LangMedia - A Cool Language Resource

When I do a security assessment in a country I've never visited before, before I leave I'll spend some time coming up to speed on the local culture and language. There are lots of resources for doing this, but one of my favorites is called LangMedia. It's a project of the Five Colleges consortium (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith colleges and the University of Massachusetts Amherst).

LangMedia has free instructional material for learning an assortment of languages. And I don't mean just your standard Spanish, French, and Arabic. The Web site seems to specialize in uncommon languages and dialects for many parts of the world where humanitarian work often occurs. Course outlines, practice dialogs, audio files, and lists of additional resources are all available for viewing, listening, and downloading.

One of the most beneficial parts of the site is called CultureTalk. This is a collection of video clips of discussions with residents of many countries. The speakers talk about a variety of cultural topics, often in their own language (written local and English transcriptions are provided). The interview clips feature different people, with a range of genders, ages, and walks of life represented. To give you a taste, here's a CultureTalk page for Yemen. (You can download any of the videos, which makes for great prep on a laptop or tablet during long flights to your destination.)

LangMedia excels at introducing you to common words and phrases, giving you an ear for what a language sounds like, and presenting cultural aspects of places that far surpass what most guidebooks offer. And if you want to get deeper into a language, mentored and self study courses are also available.

If you do international aid work (or are just curious about different cultures), this resource is a must.


Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Protest /Civil Unrest First Aid

It's not unheard of for international humanitarian workers to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and accidentally get caught in a potentially violent encounter between protestors and security forces. (Or perhaps you're involved with an activist organization, and being part of the protest is the plan.)

Ending up in the middle of civil unrest, whether by fate or design, definitely increases the chances of your being injured. Even peaceful protests in Western democracies have a history of violence where law enforcement has occasionally used excessive amounts of force to deal with crowds.

The diligent NGO security practitioner identifies and understands threats and determines best responses. If there's a good probability that you or a staff member may be impacted by civil unrest violence, it makes sense to know what to expect and have a basic knowledge of protest first aid.

Unfortunately, standard first aid courses don't teach you how to treat exposure to tear gas and pepper spray or what happens if you get hit with a rubber bullet or some other less-than-lethal projectile.

The best place to learn such things is from a street medic. Street medics are people with varying amounts of medical knowledge and skills who volunteer and support large protests. Street medics trace their roots back to the American civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. They're out in the streets with protestors or run clinics just outside of protest areas. Thanks to the work of street medics all over the world, there's a large body of knowledge on common protest injuries and how to treat them.

Whether you advise staff members in countries prone to civil unrest or you're planning on getting involved with the emerging Occupy Wall Street (and elsewhere) movement, here are some Internet street medic resources to explore (if you're not into activism, just focus on the practical information and treat the political opinion and commentary as just that):