A Thoughtful, Analytical Approach to NGO Security

Finding NGO Security Officer Jobs

How do I get a job as an NGO security officer? I've been asked that question several times over the last few weeks. I can't claim to be an expert in this regard as there was a fair bit of serendipity involved in getting my first security job with the UN. However, I have asked around a bit and I think the following advice should help anyone looking for a security job in the NGO world.

If you already have a safety or security background breaking into NGO security isn’t usually too difficult. You’ll need to concentrate on adapting your existing skills so that they more closely match the needs of humanitarian organizations. RedR’s Security Management course familiarized me with the humanitarian vocabulary and helped me recognize adjustments I would need to make in my working style. It helps to focus on the ‘softer’ side of security: acceptance vs. deterrence.

If you already have a humanitarian background you’ll obviously need to take the opposite tact. Concentrate on improving your security skills. Many NGOs offer free in-house security courses. You might also want to volunteer to be a security focal point in exchange for security training.

If you don’t fall into either of the above categories you are likely to find it more difficult to break into the NGO security field but all is not lost. Identify appropriate skills that you already possess and then concentrate on acquiring additional skills and experience. The tips below should help as well.

General Tips

Take courses – RedR offers some good security management courses. Take courses that involve face-to-face interaction. This will provide networking opportunities. Don’t limit yourself to purely security courses. Communications training, hostile environment driving, mine awareness, fire safety, and advanced first aid are courses you should consider. The trainer versions of these courses are especially valuable for security professionals.

Volunteer – Consider volunteering for a while. This will provide you with additional experience and prove to potential employers that you are motivated by more than just money.

Network – Many NGO security positions are filled by word of mouth. Try to establish good relationships with established security practitioners. Take part in online discussions. Consider writing security related articles.

Polish your resume – Make sure your resume reflects the type of position you are seeking. A resume tailored for a local position may not be suitable when applying for an international position.

Security Jobs Online

These sites should be your starting points for any online job search. Most list more than just security jobs but you can filter the listings pretty quickly to find what you are looking for.

ReliefWeb: Many humanitarian organizations post their vacancies listings here. You'll also find UN, governmental, media and academic positions available.
AlertNet: AlertNet is another good source of security job listings from multiple organizations.
jobs.un.org: If you are looking for UNDSS or DPKO security jobs this is a good place to start.
unjobs.org: This link is not actually a UN site but it does have UN and NGO job listings.
RedR: Many organizations use RedR to help them find suitable candidates for positions they have available. Registration is required.

Don't ignore the websites of the larger humanitarian organizations either. Most have job listings that include security positions from time to time.

Sri Lanka 2008

2008 is going to be a very difficult year for humanitarian organizations working in Sri Lanka according to this post in groundviews. I wish I could disagree with the author as the predictions are grim indeed.

"Senior leadership of pro-democracy NGOs will face ever increasing hate speech by those in power and their local and international apparatchiks. Field workers of local and international human rights and humanitarian organizations in particular will suffer the brunt of physical attacks, including outright murder and torture with total impunity. Further, organizations working on media freedom and the freedom of expression will find themselves painted as agents of foreign government’s with no real legitimacy in Sri Lanka. The Administration will become more rabid and parochial in its definition of what is local, authentic, Sinhala and Sri Lankan and essentially kosher in civil society initiatives. Anything and anyone that falls outside these self-styled definitions will be dealt with extreme prejudice."

Unfortunately I think that Sanjana has it right. You might want to make sure your contingency plans are in place and up to date.

Twitter Tracking for NGO Security

Two months ago Twitter added the ability to track keywords. Essentially this capability means that whenever someone sends a public update containing the word or phrase you’ve told Twitter to track you’ll receive a copy of the SMS.

Since its introduction I’ve been examining this feature’s potential utility for NGO security officers. I’ve tracked the names of several towns in trouble areas, the term Tsunami, and a variety of other keywords. The effort produced some positive results.

While most of the results were tweets sent by news services there were some other useful messages. On two occasions the messages containing tracked terms tipped me off hours before the issue made the media. On another occasion the issue never even made it to the mainstream media. In each case we were able to take pre-emptive action to reduce our potential risk.

There are caveats however. You get ALL public updates containing the search term, even ones in languages you don’t speak. It’s also surprising how terms are used sometimes. ‘Information Tsunami’ seems to be making its way into the modern lexicon. Apparently Tsunami is also the name of a very popular Sushi restaurant. It must be on the other side of the world from me because people’s lunchtime “enjoying Sushi at Tsunami” messages would arrive in the middle of the night. Needless to say I’m not tracking Tsunami any more.

Another Red Cross Worker Killed in Sri Lanka

Sooriyakanthi Thavarajah, a volunteer of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society, was found dead after being abducted by unidentified gunmen last Friday. According to a Red Cross Red Crescent Movement statement:

"Mr Thavarajah had been an active member of the Red Cross for many years and served as chairman of the Point Pedro Division for the past three years. In 2005, he received an award for ‘Best Volunteer’ from the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society in recognition of his contribution during the tsunami tragedy."

This is the second killing of Red Cross workers in Sri Lanka this year. On 1 June two SLRCS volunteers were abducted and killed in Colombo by persons claiming to be police officers.

UN Staff Union Advises Staff to Skip Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is among the world’s most dangerous places for aid workers according to the United Nations Staff Union. According to these articles the union is expected to advise staffers not to take postings to Sri Lanka due to the security risks that aid workers face. Although the union places much of the blame on the government of Sri Lanka it also notes with concern “the lukewarm response by UN officials in supporting their own staff”.

Avoid Lanka: UN union tells staff
UN Staffers Union urges their Members to avoid Sri Lanka

BGAN Explorer 500 - Final Thoughts and Lessons Learned

Earlier I wrote about the new BGAN Explorer 500 we were fielding. Well I’m back from the field and the unit is set up and running so I thought I’d share a few lessons learned and give my revised impressions of the unit.

Lessons Learned

  • Ensure you completely set up your account before you go to the field. Some service providers (like ours) want you to log in to their website to activate your account before they’ll allow the BGAN to make a data or voice connection. This is going to be difficult if you are already in the field and have no other reliable connection. I learned that the hard way.

  • Make sure the IT section either removes all proxy settings on the computer you’ll attach to the BGAN or that they give you administrator privileges.

  • Take lots of extra cable. Ten-meter lengths of CAT 5 and telephone cable, plus a similarly sized outdoor power cable should suffice. This might seem like a lot but if you need to use it from inside a bunker you’ll be glad of the extra length.

  • Take backup cables. You never know whose dog will decide to chew through them.

  • It’s also a good idea to have a compass. There is one built in to the unit but it is rather fiddly and, depending on the angle you need to adjust the BGAN to, it can be difficult to read.



Both the OS X and Windows versions of the connection software, called LaunchPad, are easy to install and intuitive to use. Tip: Ignore the installation guide and just follow the installer defaults. The documentation doesn’t seem to be current and you’ll end up with files scattered everywhere.

You can also access the BGAN via your regular browser. It gives you the functionality of LaunchPad plus allows you to make more advanced settings. Be warned though, most users it will find it to be a little more intimidating.


The Explorer 500 itself is pretty much ‘bomb proof’. It held up well to baking sun, monsoon rains, bouncing around the back of the truck, the attentions of a flock of hungry chickens, and a curious mutt named Max.

Overall: I’d recommend the Explorer 500 to anyone looking for a rugged, easily deployed voice and data system.


Easy to set up


Lengthy and confusing documentation
Most NGOs will find it somewhat expensive

Risk Homeostasis: Is NGO Security a Sham?

Risk homeostasis theory, developed by Gerald J.S. Wilde, has some serious potentially serious implications for NGO security.

At its core risk homeostasis theory has two basic premises. The first is that every individual has an inbuilt, personal, acceptable risk level that does not readily change. The second premise is that when the level of acceptable risk in one aspect of an individual's life changes there will be a inverse change of acceptable risk elsewhere. In other words everyone has their own risk ‘set point” at which they are comfortable and which they will endeavour to remain at.

In an NGO context it suggests that increased security precautions encourage greater risk taking amongst staff in other areas of their lives. Better vehicles and improved communications would therefore result in staff to pushing the envelope in their field activities. In effect, according to risk homeostasis theory, security measures merely serve to "move risk-taking behaviour around".

Wilde’s book, Target Risk, is full of citations from studies showing that vehicle safety improvements increase risky driving and fail to decrease the accident rate. He also cites examples of industrial safety programs that don’t decrease overall work related injuries and anti-smoking campaigns that come to nothing.

All of this begs the question of whether or not current security programs are, or even can be, effective. Do security officers, security training programs, and improvements in equipment merely shift the risk? Do aid workers compensate for decreased risk by pushing harder and farther than they would otherwise? Should we be concentrating on mitigation rather than risk reduction?

Note: The out of print first edition of “Target Risk, Dealing with the Danger of Death, Disease and Damage in Everyday Decisions” is available for free online. The expanded “Target Risk 2: A New Psychology of Safety and Health” is available from online bookstores.

Front Line: Accessible Security for Human Rights Defenders

I like Front Line more and more as time goes on. They get it. They put a lot of effort into making their security related materials accessible and understandable. Their newly updated website is clean, easy to navigate, and full of valuable resources. They have a good primer on security for human rights workers, and a great manual titled "Digital Security and Privacy for Human Rights Defenders".

Even their site licence is a breath of fresh air. They have a nice simple Creative Commons licence. Front Line understands that its job is protecting people not content. Try comparing their licence to the pages of unfriendly legalese found on the websites of some large NGOs.

Front Line is also making good use of internet video as these two examples released on YouTube demonstrate.

Video: Front Line - Protection of Human Rights Defenders

Video: NGO in a Box - Security Edition

A Periodic Table of of Visualization Methods

Visual-literacy.org has a great periodic table of visualization methods. You can find something here to help tackle the most complex of analytical problems.

table of visualization methods
Periodic Table of Visualization Methods

Thanks Rick!

Evacuation and Relocation Training

Several months ago I did evacuation, relocation and hibernation training with one of our offices. We were all very busy at the time and my planned eight-hour training day turned into three hours. I insisted we go ahead with the training despite my concern that everyone was too tired to learn anything of value.

It turns out I needn’t have worried. Last week we were forced to temporarily relocate a sub-office due to security issues. The relocation went very smoothly and staff were keen to point out that it ‘was just like the training’.

The method we used for the training is outlined below.

The team with thier creations


1. Index cards or construction paper

2. Flipchart paper – or any other type of paper you can use to cover several desks

3. Pens and markers

4. Note paper


1. Create cardboard representations of all your vehicles. They can be as simple as an index card with the vehicle details or as complex as the three-dimensional models shown in the photo below. The models in the photo are accurate down to the vehicle plate number and communication equipment on board.

2. Draw a large map that covers your operational area and potential relocation sites. The map will probably need to be large enough to cover several desk tops.

3. Prepare an equipment list outlining items needed at the relocation site and items staying behind.

4. Write each major piece of equipment on a separate small square of cardboard. Minor items can be grouped together i.e. “staff luggage - one load”.

5. Prepare a staff list that indicates who will relocate and who will stay behind. It is a good idea to brief staff on agency and individual responsibilities during evacuation/relocation a day or two before the exercise. They should also be encouraged to discuss the issue with their families.

6. Write the name of each staff member being relocated on a cardboard square.

cardboard vehicles and map

Exercise process:

1. You’ll start the exercise at your desired end state. Place the cardboard squares representing equipment and people and the vehicle models on the map at the relocation site. Divide everything into two piles: ‘essential’ and ‘nice to have’.

2. Working backward, load the equipment and staff pieces onto the vehicles. Record what equipment and which people go on which vehicle. Be realistic about how much your vehicles can carry. You’ll also need to record how long the unloading process will take.

3. Continue to work backward recording travel times, rendezvous points, rest stops etc for several alternative routes.

4. Repeat the process until all equipment and staff are back in their place of origin.

5. Using this reverse process will allow you to come up with realistic planning times, load lists, and staff lists for relocation based on your own unique situation.

Some questions to ask:

1. Have you allowed enough time for delays? Nothing ever goes perfectly to plan. Also, convoy travel is generally slower than that for an individual vehicle.

2. Will you need to make more than one trip to move all your equipment and staff? Is this going to be possible?

3. Have you allowed time for acquiring travel permission from the relevant authorities? Drafting Performa requests in advance will save time.

4. Will you be able to travel after dark? Will it be safe to do so?

Although training is important it is how it is applied in the field that matters. I'm happy to say that the team passed their real life test with flying colours.

Security Links - 2 Dec 07

Maia over at the people search site spock has kindly added the details of the 17 ACF workers who were killed in the Muttur massacre to the spock database. You can view the results on this page or you can search for "murdered aid worker" at the spock site.

The NGO Security blog has been running a series of "What would you do if....?" scenarios based on videos from YouTube and other online sources. They are well worth checking out. The video makes the exercise a little more visceral. You don't need to be a security officer to participate. In fact I would guess that non security officers would benefit the most.

Watch the videos and imagine what you would do. Imagine yourself actually being there. Do it with as much detail as your imagination will allow. How would you respond? How would you feel? You don’t need to worry about getting the “right” answer. You don’t even need to leave an answer for the exercise to be beneficial. Visualization is a powerful tool. It will help you cope mentally with future crises.

Once you’ve done these yourself try them with your peers or your family. You’ll be surprised how your responses can differ radically from those of others. In Scenario 5 it wouldn’t do you any good to know that backing up quickly is a good idea if your driver thinks the best option is to jump out of the vehicle and hide in the ditch.

Silobreaker has updated their site. It is now easier to make sense of what you are seeing. The graphs and link diagrams are especially useful.

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