Designing Security: Methods for Improving Security Managing Practices and Security among Humanitarian Organizations

Brief Author: 
Vincenzo Bolletino

Humanitarian organizations operate in increasingly hostile environments. Although authoritative statistics are scarce, anecdotal evidence suggests that aid workers face life-threatening risks that are exacerbated by the growing number of humanitarian organizations operating in the field with varying mandates, without common professional security standards and with limited success with inter-agency security coordination. The ability of humanitarian organizations to fulfill their mandates in the future, will be depend in part on their individual success in improving internal security management practices and in finding ways to coordinate their efforts on building common security standards and security coordination across agencies. To meet this challenge, humanitarian organizations must implement improved security management methods and finds ways to coordinate their security operations and planning.


Abstract Continued

Despite broad acceptance of the need to develop better security management and coordination, many humanitarian organizations remain ambivalent about coordinating their security activities and few have instituted robust measures for improving their own security management practices. Further, efforts to improve security management practices are hampered by a critical lack of basic empirical knowledge about the field security environment. In discussions about humanitarian staff safety and security, the least common denominator continues to be cumulative anecdotal evidence provided by the many security personnel working for humanitarian organizations in the field.

This policy brief reviews the literature on humanitarian organization security management, highlighting common misconceptions about the field security environment, reviews the main structural and procedural issues impeding more effective security management, and illustrates why current initiatives to improve security management practices will remain only partial successes if they do not include a serious effort to replace anecdotal reporting on the field security environment with systematic collection and analysis of field security data. It argues that staff security requires a common professional approach based on sound security expertise adapted to meet the operational needs of humanitarian organizations. A model is developed for creating a network of security professionals responsible for guiding the design and implementation of common security standards and security information sharing protocol.


This policy brief draws on the extant scholarly and policy literature on security management and coordination, the author’s own experience with designing field security reporting systems for the United Nations and several NGOs, and on feedback from discussions with UN and NGO security managers attending a pilot training course designed by the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University (HPCR), held at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) in Geneva, Switzerland from June 30 to July 3, 2006. An amended version of this brief will appear in the journal Disasters in 2007.

Definition of terms

Security Management: Those practices adopted by humanitarian organizations to ensure the security of their personnel, property, and programs, including, though not limited to, staff security training, risk assessment methods, incident reporting, improving security equipment, and crisis management procedures.

Security Coordination: Those policies, procedures, and practices designed to improve staff security through inter-agency collaboration, especially through developing common security standards, sharing security resources, and sharing security-related information.

Background: Are humanitarian aid workers at increased risk?

A recent report by the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) notes “since 1992, 229 United Nations civilian staff members have been killed as a result of malicious acts.”1 Further, during the period from July 1, 2004 to June 30, 2005, UNDSS “received information detailing the deaths of 65 international and national staff of international, non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations as a result of malicious acts.”2 While there is no definitive study that offers an authoritative number of humanitarian aid worker deaths, there is general consensus that the absolute numbers of aid workers killed by violence is increasing.3 This poses serious problems for both humanitarian aid organizations and their donors as the “high number of these types of security incidents undermines the operational efficiency and effectiveness of the United Nations, degrades the personal safety and well-being of staff and compromises the security of field installations.”4

1United Nations General Assembly, Sixtieth Session, “Report of the Secretary General: Safety and Security of Humanitarian Personnel and Protection of United Nations Personnel,” A/60/223: 2.
2Ibid., 3.
3See, e.g., Dennis King, Paying the Ultimate Price: An Analysis of Aid-Worker Fatalities, 21 Humanitarian Exchange (2002); Mani Sheik, Deaths Among Humanitarian Workers, 321 British Medical Journal (2000); Koenraad Van Brabant, Mainstreaming the Organizational Management of Safety and Security: A Review of Aid Agency Practices and a Guide for Management, 9 Humanitarian Policy Group Report (2001).
4UN A/60/223: 3.

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