IHSA Conference 2018 | Aid behind walls? A spatial view of humanitarian security by Janine Bressmer

The humanitarian aid community in reaction to security risks facing its staff is slowly but surely building a Fort Knox around itself. This article details only some of the risks associated with the building of physical and psychological walls, showing that ultimately, this act negatively influences the relationship between humanitarian staff and local populations. Humanitarian aid workers and scholars must actively investigate how they manage the security of humanitarian staff to prevent this from happening.


Ahead of 2018 World Humanitarian Day on 19 August, organisations are again pushing for recognition of the safety of their staff and operations in countries such as Yemen, South Sudan, Syria and the DRC. In 2017, 313 aid workers were victims of major attacks, of which over 90% were national staff.[1] The perception of this type of violence is hugely influential for how the humanitarian community engages with and responds to the environment where aid work aims to alleviate suffering.

The discourse on violence in humanitarian work, and specifically that of severe violence, has helped exaggerate existential threats and foster a climate of heightened fear.[2] It is in this context that humanitarian risk management found significant traction.[3] Although the delivery of aid has always been in areas experiencing severe violence and suffering from natural disasters or conflict for example, humanitarian security is increasingly seen as a vital part of protecting both the concept and practice of aid.

The need for ways to assess humanitarian security risks

However, there exists no common framework for assessing and responding to risks for humanitarian programming and staff. Ideally, such frameworks are used to identify harm, the probability and severity of the impact, and the development of an appropriate response by the organisation.[4] However, the widespread use of “standard” risk management approaches in humanitarian work represents an increased reliance on standardised assessments and “expert” opinion. The knowledge of staff on the ground, whether in senior management positions or not, arguably no longer feeds into the creation and implementation of security protocols and manuals.

Blanket approaches to the management of security, including both operational and staff security, may mean that stringent restrictions on the movement and visibility of aid workers results in their distancing from those they aim to help. Building concrete walls, setting up barbed wire fences, and posting a security guard in front of the main gate may be a way to deter violence, yet this approach to security can do more harm than good in the long run.

Humanitarian organisations must do more

Presently, the international community approaches security from a reactive stance, often putting in place measures only after major incidences have occurred and without institutionalising dedicated security advisor roles. Yet, and indeed, while aid will never be delivered in entirely “peaceful” spaces, humanitarian organisations must do more to approach their security in ways that neither threaten their own existence, nor that of their staff and the local population.

The current environment of risk management does not allow for the consideration of individual decisions based on available information.[5] This “new” risk management approach is, arguably, institutionalised in aid organisations and erodes individual and local autonomy in favour of distant security experts.[6] Further, the use of security protocols and fortification procedures, in combination with continuous attacks against aid workers, continues to push organisations to react by putting up walls, setting up perimeter lining of their buildings, and reducing the movement and visibility of staff.

This discourse of fear poses significant problems for the future of humanitarian action:

“Risk” leading to invisibility, separation, or absence: Approaching risks in humanitarian programming from a reactive stance can result in the visible separation of aid workers from the local population through their withdrawal into fortified aid compounds. Beyond the visible separation, security protocols can generate a discourse of fear of the “Other”, and can even lead to the absence of humanitarian aid programmes or a transfer of risk to local partner organisations without an accompanying transfer of capacities.

Top-down and divisive approaches to security: Not only does a blanket approach to security fail to consider local information and experiences, but it also can significantly hinder the communication between HQ and the field, as well as between the senior positions on the ground and the national staff. This divide can lead to a loss of trust between the two, resulting in a stop of reporting on security incidences to protect jobs and the program as a whole.[7] The stark divide between both the number of national versus international staff affected by violence, as well as the different security procedures for each, significantly contributes to this.

Materiality of reactive security management and its impact on everyday life inside and outside the compound: The materiality of the actual fortification can serve to enable and hinder, shape and change the way in which aid workers inhabit the space inside the compound. Daily routines of requiring permission to exit the compound, using armored vehicles when doing so, and physically and visually reducing ‘seeing’ the beneficiary are results of existing security measures. This can not only have implications for how aid workers act inside the compound, but also for how they perceive their own security, positionality in the local context, and their relationships with other organisations and actors in the space. The compound’s spatial manifestation itself can also influence the local economy. Building materials required for fortification (or even the building of an office space) can impact and alter demand, potentially resulting in price inflation, a reduction of available goods, and an undermining of both local building practices and businesses.

The translation of security protocols and manuals into the everyday: Whereas the generation and implementation of security manuals and protocols is most likely not going to be phased out anytime soon, the way in which aid workers interact with these structures and guidelines every day can greatly improve or undermine how humanitarian aid is carried out and perceived on the ground. Protocols become operationalised through their interpretation, use and adaptation in the context in which they are employed. Restrictions on movements and strict reporting chains can lead to aid workers not only experiencing the local environment in very “securitised” ways, but can also visibly signal to the local population that the organisation sees their space as insecure outside the walls of their own “safe” compound.

Rather than ignoring some of these issues, the humanitarian community must actively investigate its own security management and understand how their actions, materiality and visibility can contribute to safely delivering the assistance they are set up to do. This involves recognising their complicity, through their own discourse and everyday actions, in generating an environment that would rather build walls than find ways to safely integrate themselves in the local society they aim to serve.


[1] Humanitarian Outcomes, “Aid Worker Security Report: Figures at a Glance” (London: Humanitarian Outcomes, 2018), https://aidworkersecurity.org/sites/default/files/AWSR%20Figures%202018.pdf.
[2] Larissa Fast, Aid in Danger: The Perils and Promise of Humanitarianism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 51.
[3] Important to note here that there is a distinction between risk and security management of aid organizations. Risk management encompasses, as one of its dimensions, the management of security.
[4] Victoria Metcalfe, Ellen Martin, and Sara Pantuliano, “Risk in Humanitarian Action: Towards a Common Approach?,” Policy Brief, HPG Commissioned Paper (London: Overseas Development Institute: Humanitarian Policy Group, 2011), 2.
[5] Mark Duffield, “Risk-Management and the Fortified Aid Compound: Everyday Life in Post-Interventionary Society,” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 4, no. 4 (2010): 463, https://doi.org/10.1080/17502971003700993.
[6] Duffield, 463.
[7] Ashley Jackson and Steven A. Zyck, “Presence and Proximity: To Stay and Deliver, Five Years On” (Geneva: Norwegian Refugee Council; UNOCHA; Jindal School of International Affairs, 2017), 41, https://www.nrc.no/globalassets/pdf/reports/presence-and-proximity_to-stay-and-deliver—five-years-on_final_2017-web-version.pdf.

References
Duffield, Mark. “Risk-Management and the Fortified Aid Compound: Everyday Life in Post-Interventionary Society.” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 4, no. 4 (2010): 453–74. https://doi.org/10.1080/17502971003700993.
Fast, Larissa. Aid in Danger: The Perils and Promise of Humanitarianism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
Humanitarian Outcomes. “Aid Worker Security Report: Figures at a Glance.” London: Humanitarian Outcomes, 2018. https://aidworkersecurity.org/sites/default/files/AWSR%20Figures%202018.pdf.
Jackson, Ashley, and Steven A. Zyck. “Presence and Proximity: To Stay and Deliver, Five Years On.” Geneva: Norwegian Refugee Council; UNOCHA; Jindal School of International Affairs, 2017. https://www.nrc.no/globalassets/pdf/reports/presence-and-proximity_to-stay-and-deliver—five-years-on_final_2017-web-version.pdf.
Metcalfe, Victoria, Ellen Martin, and Sara Pantuliano. “Risk in Humanitarian Action: Towards a Common Approach?” Policy Brief. HPG Commissioned Paper. London: Overseas Development Institute: Humanitarian Policy Group, 2011.

Bressmer_photoAbout the author: 

Janine Bressmer is a PhD Candidate at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. Her research examines how humanitarian organizations approach the security of their operations and staff, the spatial manifestations of security in terms of fortified aid compounds, and the implications for the practice and concept of humanitarian action. The project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

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