We received a call from an international broadcast news agency regarding Wednesday’s rescue of the two kidnapped members of the Danish Relief Committee (DRC) by US military forces in Somalia. The context of the discussion was whether the DRC should have used international security protection for their presence in Somalia instead of relying on local nationals. Had the DRC attempted to employ international protection assets in Somalia, it very likely would have made their position untenable and impossible to operate. This case illustrates a broader issue. There is a model that most non-governmental organizations (NGO) prefer to use for staff safety and security in complex environments. When working in an area where the greatest threats are from crime, instability, civil strife or conflict, the NGO must have a clear and comprehensive strategy that addresses the risk to staff. Their security strategy is based on the perceptions of community members with whom they are working to pursue their humanitarian or development goals. The principle objective is to rely on the goodwill of the local population for safety. However, the choice of a security strategy depends on the range of safety and security measures available. Keeping a low profile or assuming protection based on “doing good work” is not an effective organizational security strategy. A strategy must be well thought out, carefully crafted to the local context and assiduously maintained in order to be effective. Generally, there are three types:
Acceptance. Most aid organizations prefer an Acceptance strategy. It involves reducing or removing the threat by gaining widespread understanding and acceptance for the organization’s presence and work. The way projects are designed and carried out, and how the organization reacts to events, must be transparent and consistent with the guiding principles it has been communicating. If the community or government clearly understands and supports the purpose, they can become part of the security network, providing warning of possible changes in the security environment or mitigating their effects.
Protection. A Protection strategy usually involves implementing increased security measures, such as strengthening locks and barring windows, setting curfew or hiring guards for warehouses and offices. These efforts reduce the risk (but not the threat) by making staff and assets less vulnerable.
Deterrence involves reducing the risk from instability or crime by containing and deterring the threat with a counter-threat. These may consist of supporting military actions, legal, economic or political sanctions or withdrawing agency support and staff. Single NGOs rarely possess a deterrence capability. In addition, NGOs subscribe to a set of principles called the “humanitarian mandate,” which precludes them from carrying weapons or having weapons or ammunition while on assignment with the NGO.
Many organizations have an institutional preference for one strategy or the other, but these strategies are not mutually exclusive. In practice, an organization may employ a mix of strategies or emphasize one more than another in different areas of operations. The attempt to gain acceptance and consent may be combined with protective measures where crime and banditry remain a real threat that the authorities and the population themselves do not have the ability to control. The use of deterrence, usually in a military context, may facilitate delivery of aid in conflict settings, but protective measures for the organization’s assets may still be required.