Managing the Security of Aid Workers with Diverse Profiles

Publication Date: 
Monday, July 10, 2017
Lisa Reilly / EISF

This guest blog post comes to us from Adelicia Fairbanks. Adelicia is Research Adviser at the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF), where she is responsible for producing original research papers, articles, blogs and guides that help share and promote best practices in security risk management within the humanitarian sector, with the aim of building the capacity of security practitioners. She is currently managing a research project on the security of staff with diverse profiles.

As an aid worker, it is not unusual to travel in remote and insecure locations, driving from one field location to another in clearly marked humanitarian vehicles. Being stopped at checkpoints is also a regular feature of being an aid worker. But imagine you reach a checkpoint where the guards are young and appear tense. They tell everyone to get out of the car. One of your colleagues is a wheelchair user and therefore you make way to help them leave the vehicle. The checkpoint guards become agitated when they notice that not everyone appears to be immediately following orders. They start to shout and wave their weapons. The environment quickly turns threatening.

What do you do?

Is your organisation prepared when it comes to supporting the safety and security of staff members? What about staff members with disabilities? Do they provide guidance on security for LGBTI staff members when deploying them to countries where their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression (SOGIE) is not legal or culturally accepted? Do you consider the race or ethnicity of your staff before asking them to work in regions where historical and present-day conflicts may place them at greater risk than their colleagues?

If you work for an organisation focused on persons with disability you may have received training on how to avert or manage a situation like this. In many other organisations, however, you are unlikely to have received sufficient guidance – even among those with experience on disability programming.  In fact, CBM is the only organisation EISF is aware of that does this type of training.  

Preliminary research by the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF), which will be published in early 2018, suggests that not many humanitarian and development NGOs have adapted their security risk management to take into account the security needs of staff with diverse profiles. Many NGO security risk management processes currently focus primarily on the outside environment when assessing risks and mitigating against them, while often failing to consider in depth how the identities of staff within the NGO can affect individuals’ and the organisation’s risk levels.

The good news is that the tides are shifting in this regard. More NGOs are discussing these issues, but debate now needs to turn into action. Staff with diverse profiles exhibit different risk levels depending on the context in which they work. Organisations should therefore put in place procedures and systems that improve the security of all their staff, while being mindful of their diversity.

How to do this while still respecting individuals’ rights to privacy, equality, diversity and inclusion?

Good practice in security risk management suggests risk assessing roles, prior to recruiting a new staff member and upon identifying a final candidate, to better understand the context in which the new recruit would be operating in and what risks given identity profiles might be exposed to. However, if a decision were made not to recruit an individual on the basis of this information, it could potentially be deemed discriminatory and contrary to the law. This is only one example where practical security steps at a field level can contradict legal requirements.

The European Union (EU) has put in place legislation that protects individuals from discrimination in relation to ‘protected characteristics’, which include disability, sexual orientation and racial or ethnic origin. Furthermore, the EU’s upcoming Data Protection Directive imposes restrictions on the processing of sensitive personal data, which means that an individual’s racial or ethnic origin, sexual orientation, and information concerning their health can only be processed with the explicit consent of the individual. This means that unless an individual explicitly shares information in relation to their disability, SOGIE and/or ethnicity or race, NGOs, as employers, have no right to ask, nor are they allowed to make decisions that could be deemed discriminatory in relation to these characteristics.

While this legislation is welcome and vital for protecting aid workers from discrimination, it has implications for security risk management. EISF’s experience shows that many security advisers do not feel able to ask personal questions of their staff, even though they know that their personal identity may affect their risk profile. This grey area, and lack of guidance from within the sector, has inhibited NGOs from having open and honest discussions about staff diversity and how to best manage the security of all employees.

In the face of these challenges, aid workers have been looking out for themselves and setting up informal communities of support. For example, Gaydworker has given LGBTI aid workers a safe space to share experiences that help others prepare for being deployed overseas, e.g. whether it is safe to be ‘out’ around national colleagues in certain countries. While this informal support mechanism is undoubtedly a valuable resource, these networks should not replace an employer’s duty of care towards their staff.

All of this may seem to place NGOs and aid workers in a difficult position. NGOs want to, on the one hand, ensure staff are safe, while on the other, protect staff members’ rights to privacy and equality. There is a more positive way to approach this issue, however, and that is by acknowledging that in most circumstances the security of aid workers is a joint responsibility:

  • of the individuals to inform themselves and make sound security decisions; and
  • of the employer, to provide the framework that enables staff members to make informed security decisions to protect themselves and their colleagues, and to support staff if things go wrong.

Improving the security of staff with diverse profiles starts, first and foremost, with the acknowledgment that all staff are different and therefore will all exhibit varying degrees of vulnerability and strengths in given contexts. Diverse staff profiles need not be limited to disability, SOGIE, ethnicity or race, but can also include age, gender, nationality, etc.

Organisational culture needs to change. That means that the employing organisation should at the very least:

  • Understand the risks that people with diverse profiles may face in given contexts.
  • Inform staff of these risks in a manner that does not require them to disclose their identity profiles unless they wish to do so, e.g. through security briefings that are context-specific.
  • Offer staff opportunities to provide feedback anonymously on perceptions of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
  • Provide appropriate support mechanisms should staff wish for additional information or support in relation to security concerns relating to their profile.
  • Put in place measures that improve the security of staff with diverse profiles where this is possible without undermining staff’s rights to privacy and equality.
  • Support greater collaboration between security teams and human resource departments.
  • Build the capacity of staff through inductions and trainings on organisational values and how to support the security of staff with diverse profiles.
  • Promote diversity. Your organisation is more likely to make the right security decisions in relation to staff with diverse profiles if these individuals have a say in the organisation’s approach to staff security.[1]

When undertaking the above, it is important that NGOs understand that there can be disparity between the legal requirements understood at headquarters level and the practical security procedures undertaken in the field; the challenge is to balance these distinct approaches at different levels within the organisation.

Where we came from and where we are going

EISF published a research paper in 2012 that provided guidance to NGOs on how to carry out gender-sensitive security risk management. From gender-sensitive security briefings and trainings to gender-disaggregated data in incident reports, the point of this paper was to better understand the different security vulnerabilities of men and women in different contexts and to put in place appropriate and informed measures to improve the security of all.

However, the discussions following this paper highlighted the need to expand the scope of the research to include a better understanding of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (SOGIE) when implementing security risk management. As a result, EISF jointly held a workshop with RedR UK on inclusion and security of LGBTI aid workers in early 2016. You can read the workshop report here. The debate that was sparked at the workshop evidenced that this is a serious issue NGOs need to consider in more depth.

To facilitate additional learning in this area and to provide guidance to security practitioners within the humanitarian sector, EISF is now in the process of developing a research paper on how to manage the security of staff with diverse profiles. The scope of this research goes beyond SOGIE and includes disability as well as race and ethnicity, with the aim to provide broad guidance on how NGOs, and in particular security managers/advisors, can improve the security of staff with diverse profiles while still respecting individuals’ rights to privacy, equality, diversity and inclusion. From security risk assessments to travel management, the aim of this research is to provide a series of tools that organisations can use to help keep staff with diverse profiles safe. To inform this research and improve guidance to organisations regarding the security of staff with diverse profiles, EISF is currently inviting individuals with work experience in the humanitarian and development sectors to please take the following survey. We also welcome practitioners for interviews with the research team, particularly on examples of good practice from either the public, private or third sector in relation to managing the security of staff with diverse profiles.

The research team can be reached via If you have any questions, please feel free to also email me at To learn more about the research project, please visit the EISF website.


[1] In early 2017, EISF explored the perceived impact that the presence of more female security advisors has had on improving gender-sensitive security risk management within humanitarian aid organisations. The response was overwhelmingly positive.


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