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Managing teams in dangerous places—The basics.

A guest post by J.

Those of you who follow my writing in other places know that I’m a full-time, professional humanitarian worker, a die-hard believer in the humanitarian enterprise. What I’ve said less often publicly is that for the past few years involvement with humanitarian security issues and security management practice has become an increasing part of my day-to-day work. There’s a great deal written and a wide range of training options available for individual aid and development workers to learn to stay safe in dangerous places. This is all very good, and I’m pleased to see it. What’s mostly missing up to now, however, is much coordinated thinking about how manager and leaders (especially in the field, or those who manage frequently deployed staff) can effectively, well, lead and manage in dangerous places.

I won’t purport to be the end-all, be-all voice, but here are a couple of posts about how I see the issues and manage for them as a mid- to upper-rank staff who leads humanitarians in the field as my day job.

There are many places to dive into this topic, but perhaps let’s start here:

According to the most recent Aid Worker Security Database report (get the report here), 2013 was a record year for violence against aid workers. If you read the report, you’ll see that there’s quite a bit packed into that statement: The majority of those affected were national or local staff, rather than expats; Most incidents occurred on the road, during transport—illegal checkpoints, ambushes, carjackings, etc.; Abduction and outright killing of aid workers remain proportionally somewhat low, but are on the rise; and there’s some geographic specificity, too—Syria, South Sudan, and Afghanistan dominate the statistics. Despite that dominance, though, this is a global problem.

So, what does this mean for me as a manager in the aid world? It means a few things:

First, we must acknowledge that violence against aid workers is an actual, real thing. It’s not random. It’s not wrong place, wrong time. It’s not paranoia. We’re targetted specifically. We are at-risk just by going to work. I don’t mean to try to put aid workers on the same level, necessarily, as other categories or occupations in far greater danger than us. Nevertheless, the world has changed for us, and still continues to change even more. It’s almost cliche in 2015 to observe that humanitarians no long occupy the position of privileged safety that we once did as we went about our work in and on the peripheries of fragile and at-war places across the globe. I think we have to be eyes-open to the reality and not try to downplay our at-risk status in the world.

Second, we need to adequately prioritize institutional preventative measures, as well as staff care. We need to be especially intentional as we think through how these play across culturally/nationally diverse teams that include expatriate and local staff. We need to be aware of and understand industry barriers to both of these things.

By institutional preventative measures, I mean things like having security managers, doing security assessments and planning, making sure our staff have taken a Hostile Environment Awareness Training (or something similar). The barriers to these are largely financial, as these things all cost money, and in the majority of cases these kinds of things cannot be accounted as “direct” or “programme” costs. The requirement to put measures like this in the “overhead” portion of the budget means that many NGOs drag their feet on this stuff, try to cut corners (send one staff person to a HEAT course, and then expect him or her to come back and retrain the entire team, etc.), or simply don’t budget for them at all. As managers, it’s our job to fight for this stuff, to make sure that it’s all reflected in every draft of every budget that we have input on preparing. We need to go through the ritual of forcing INGO executive leaders to tell us to take staff safety measures out of budgets (rather than anticipating it, and voluntarily not budgeting it). If donors squawk when we propose that a portion of their money be used to keep safe the staff who will actually do the work, we need to push back.

Other preventative measure are things like curfews, movement tracking, communications protocols, check-in protocols, buddy systems, and no-go zones. The barriers to these are not as much about money, since these kinds of things don’t typically cost much (it takes one group email to impose a curfew), but rather staff themselves. We need to model mature safety behavior and foster cultures of sound security management within our teams and departments. This is not stuff that we do to indulge the banging on of the security officer or our agency’s legal counsel.

Yes, I can already see the eye-rolls from some. I’ve certainly spent my share of time on lockdown, while apparently every other aid worker in town was happily eating sushi or having sundowners at some new place just down the road. And I have my own cache of go-to “security manager from hell” stories. I’m not talking about bunkerization or adopting paranoia as a management paradigm, here. I am talking about taking reasonable precautions, informed by actual data and analysis. I am talking about waking up to the realities of the world in 2015 and not simply assuming that because the refugee smile as we hand over a bag of CSB that it’s all good and we’re perfectly safe. Humanitarian security is evolving into a field in its own right—as aid workers, let’s not make the mistake of assuming that we can blow off methodical, strategic security management just because “that guy in Goma in, what was it, 2003…” (Aid In Danger, by Larissa Fast, has some excellent thoughts on effective security management in today’s changing humanitarian space.)

We need to understand fluently the issues and concepts around “duty of care”, we need to advocate for organizational staff care policies which address the needs of local staff as well as expatriates. A huge part of this involves understanding and providing for the mental health needs of our staff who work (perhaps right alongside us) in some dangerous or chronically stressful contexts. As Alessandra points out, these issues are nothing new. But it’s far past time to take aid worker mental health seriously, both on the front end as we send people into contexts that we know very well from experience will potentially cause issues, as well as on the back end after people have been in those conditions. As managers, it’s critical that we not only make policy and budget decisions, but also that we model healthy behavior in our own lives, whether that means take preventative measure or seeking help when we need it. Easier said than done, but thankfully the industry is (slowly) changing for the better on this point.

Third, we have to get a grip on what this means for us in the context of staffing. We need to think carefully about the kind of people that we recruit and place into dangerous and/or high-stress contexts, along with the organizational commitments required to make and keep those people viable in their roles.

This is related to the debate around professionalizing the aid sector. As risks and dangers for individual aid workers increase, so the risks and costs for the organizations who employ them. Security training for humanitarian workers is not cheap. When things go wrong in the realm of safety and security, it costs the organization on every possible front. Team morale plummets (understandably. Depending on the issue, staff may be afraid continue doing their jobs. Some might leave. Programme delivery—the core purpose of being there in the first place—stops or slows. Publicity and reputational issues are time-consuming and bandwidth-sucking to deal with. And all of it costs money—donor money, money that would otherwise be spent getting relief to people who need it).

I understand the media’s love affair with the pink-cheeked activist who passionately self-deploys from hellhole to hellhole, apparently both carefree and earnest at the same time. But as a manager, in the field, I am responsible for, the well-being those under my supervision, for the effective use of donor funding, and most important of all, for making certain that relief aid gets to those who need it. And in those kinds of contexts, for me staffing is a no-brainer: They don’t have to be battle-scarred 30-year veterans, but they do have to be grown-ups who know what they’re doing. They don’t have to be perfect—aid workers are a quirky bunch, and managing aid workers requires a level of patience and willingness to let personal stuff slide that I suspect is unmatched  in many other professional contexts. Arguing and giving the middle finger to authority are an integral part of aid worker identity, but when it hits the fan, I need people in the field who will with neither freak out because they heard a shot in the distance, nor blow off security protocols out of some adolescent sense of individualism. I steer clear of the made-for-TV aid workers, in favor of staff who are savvy, undramatic, and unlikely to take unnecessary risks.

On-paper credentials are important, and increasingly non-negotiable. However, personality, age (as a proxy for experience and wisdom), and maturity matter, too. If at all possible, conduct new hire interviews in person. Google everyone you’re thinking of hiring. Go through their social media. Don’t rely on HR to do reference checks: tap your aid industry networks and get the low-down. Think twice, and then a third time about taking a total newbie into a dangerous or high-stress context. Be decisive: if someone’s cracking or melting down, get them out of there.


security in aidJ. – Aid worker since 1991. Aid blogger since 2006. Author of several humanitarian novels. Formerly blogged as “J.” at “Tales From the Hood”. Now blogs at “AidSpeak” and publishes under his own indie-label, Evil Genius Publishing.





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