A Thoughtful, Analytical Approach to NGO Security


Update on kidnapped Greek aid worker

Kalash children

A 12 member jirga left Chitral yesterday for Afghanistan’s Nuristan province in an effort to secure the safe release of kidnapped aid worker Athanasios Lerounis. Lerounis was kidnapped on 8 September from his room in the Bumboret Valley.

According to the police they have “... credible reports that the Greek national has been sifted to Nuristan.” A local shepherd is reported to have witnessed a group of men taking a foreigner to a location in Afghanistan near the AfPak border. In addition police have arrested a Nuristani man suspected of being involved in the case. He is a close relative of the guide who is suspected of having helped the kidnappers move Lerounis to Nuristan.

This incident highlights the strengths and weaknesses of acceptance as an NGO security strategy. Lerounis’s acceptance by the local community did not prevent the murder of his police guard. Nor did it protect him from being kidnapped by those elements, criminal or Taliban, who live outside local societal norms. Community acceptance may however prove crucial during efforts to secure Lerounis’s safe release. Kalash community members have been actively working to secure his release. Besides the formation of the jirga mentioned above community members have assisted police in their investigations and are bringing pressure on the government to work quickly and effectively in regaining Lerounis’s freedom.

[Photo credit: Simon Taylor]

Think you have acceptance? Take the quiz

Now that we have talked about acceptance as part of an NGO security strategy, highlighted a preference for an active approach to acceptance, and noted some contributing factors, it is time for a little quiz.

Simply answer the ten short questions below to see just how well your organization really does at pursuing acceptance. Be honest.

1. Does your organization have an acceptance plan?
a. A what? No, I don’t think so.
b. Yes
c. We don’t need an acceptance plan. We just build houses.

2. Is it written down?
a. No
b. Yes
c. We need a written acceptance plan?

3. Have you read it?
a. No
b. Yes
c. Yes, but it is thirty pages of buzzwords and humanitarian fluff and I still don’t know what my part in all this is.

4. Does your organization have a clear procedure allowing beneficiaries, community members, and staff to raise concerns and complaints at the Country Director level?
a. No
b. Yes
c. We don’t receive any complaints. Everyone loves our work.

5. How long does it take for the complaint originator to get a response?
a. More than a week
b. A week or less
c. We don’t bother responding. They’ll be happy enough once we finish building their new house.

6. Can the drivers, guards, receptionists and cleaners in your organization explain your organizations mandate in their own language?
a. No
b. Yes
c. They are just drivers and cleaners. They don’t need to know that stuff.

7. Do they believe it?
a. No
b. Yes
c. I have no idea.

8. Have all your staff read and understood the personal code of conduct?
a. We don’t have one
b. Yes
c. No

9. Does your organization enforce the personal code of conduct?
a. No
b. Yes
c. Codes of conduct are unrealistic. Corruption is the cost of doing business in countries like this.

10. How did your organization handle the last incident in which a staff member was threatened by beneficiaries, community members, armed groups, or local authorities?
a. We ignored it. It was probably just a one-time thing.
b. We have a good relationship with local power brokers. We’ve discussed the issue with them and they’ve promised to help.
c. Local community leaders don’t live long enough for us to develop a relationship with them and/or nobody dares to be seen talking to us.


For every b. answer give yourself one point. For every c. answer take one point off. An answer of a. scores zero.

10 out of 10 — you probably have a good active acceptance plan. If your organization has an acceptance only security strategy this is the passing mark.

6 to 9 — not too bad. If your organization’s security approach is a mix of acceptance, protection, and deterrence strategies this is a pass.

1 to 5 — your organization has been assuming its acceptance. A lot of work needs to be done.

0 or less — are you sure you are working for a humanitarian organization and not the Marine Corps?

Note: If your organization is an INGO that has an acceptance only security strategy and you are working in Afghanistan, Somalia or Iraq it is an automatic FAIL. You should be looking for a new employer.

More on acceptance

Even active acceptance strategies have their limits as NGO security tools. As a wise friend pointed out acceptance doesn’t work very well with itinerant armed groups. Criminals, and others who make their living by preying on the weak, just don’t care that much about the good work your organization may be doing or how much the local population might like you. You’ll need something aside from an acceptance strategy to reduce the risk from these groups.

Acceptance strategies also have obvious limitations when it comes to dealing with groups and individuals who are fundamentally opposed to the values they perceive your group represents. Whether they object to your organization’s religious values, work with women, or status as ‘foreign meddlers’ it is going to be very difficult to change their perceptions even with two or three years of a consistently applied active acceptance plan.

Other factors that inhibit acceptance:

• rapid staff turnover (or rapid expansion after a disaster as in the Tsunami response or the Pakistan earthquake)

• recipient only programs that do not engage the wider community

• friction between national and international staff

• divisions between national staff along conflict lines or ethnicity

• failure to deliver on promises or perceived promises to communities

Factors that promote acceptance:

• a long term presence in the project area (but only if you have been pursuing acceptance during that period)

• knowledge of local customs and language

• A close relationship/understanding between national and international staff

Active acceptance

Last week we looked at the acceptance fallacies that sometimes prevent NGO’s from properly implementing an acceptance strategy as part of an overall NGO security plan. Today we’ll look at a more robust approach to pursuing acceptance for humanitarian actors and activity.

Real acceptance is ‘active acceptance’. It needs to be continuously pursued and won. In order for an NGO to develop an active acceptance strategy an acceptance plan needs to be written, resources allocated to it, and deliberate action taken. Active acceptance involves regularly communicating with governmental groups, non-state actors, armed factions, and other key parties. The communication can be direct or through intermediaries when discretion is required. The communication needs to be two way.

All NGO staff need to be involved in the acceptance effort. Whether they are program managers, humanitarian field staff, or drivers, they need to be able to clearly communicate the humanitarian mandate of their organization. They also need to act in a manner compatible with the mandate. One misbehaving staff member can quickly destroy an organizations acceptance.

Other considerations:

• Active acceptance is costly in terms of time and resources but is cheap compared to the consequences of poor acceptance.

• Acceptance can be difficult to achieve in fluid conflict environments. New factions require new negotiations and agreements need constant reinforcement.

• Negotiations, especially with armed factions can be particularly stressful for staff.

• A rapid expansion in the number of NGOs in a country during a humanitarian emergency can make it difficult for any organization to maintain an independent identity. The actions of NGO’s with no pre-crisis experience in the affected area can have a negative effect on the acceptance of more experienced organizations.

• Your organization doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The actions of other aid organizations effect the perceptions of yours. Joint acceptance strategies should be considered.

Acceptance and acceptance fallacies

burnt out humanitarian vehicles in Afghanistan
Vehicles burned by an angry mob — at least partially due to the ‘good program’ fallacy.

In the traditional version of the acceptance approach to security an aid organization seeks to cultivate an atmosphere of trust and familiarity with beneficiaries and the host community. The idea is that beneficiaries and host community members will not target their ‘friends’ and will provide warning of impending attack by criminals or outsiders.

It’s a good approach that fits well with humanitarian ideals. Unfortunately many aid agencies fall victim to one or more of three acceptance ‘fallacies’ that prevent proper implementation of a real acceptance strategy. The first two have been outlined in “Providing Aid in Insecure Environments: Trends in Policy and Operations”, by Abby Stoddard, Adele Harmer and Katherine Haver.

Passive or assumed acceptance fallacy: To put is bluntly this fallacy is the end result of faulty logic. The assumption is made that if the organization does not have protective and deterrent measures it must therefore have an acceptance based strategy.

The exceptionalist fallacy: The assumption that an organization can simply reiterate humanitarian principles and proclaim its neutrality and independence from all belligerent parties. The problem with this approach is that beneficiaries don’t read organizational policy documents and they often have learned to be suspicious of the moral proclamations of outsiders and those in positions of authority.

The good program fallacy: I sometimes refer to this as the ‘good houses’ fallacy. It is easy to assume that merely building ‘good houses’, or implementing good programming is all that is required to gain acceptance.

So how do we gain real acceptance? Stick around. We’ll discuss that in a future post.

Obama and NGO Security

Can a change of president improve NGO security? It is possible, but only with effort from us.

The UN rights chief says the world’s hopes are pinned on Obama. Obama says he’ll listen to the people. Change.org is taking him up on the offer.

So what does any of this have to do with NGO security? Let me explain. Amongst the ideas submitted so far is this one from Michael Bear Kleinman; “The US Should Establish a Department of Development”. A Department of Development would help give some perceptual distance between US military foreign policy and development efforts. The rhetoric surrounding recent fatal attacks on NGO’s in Afghanistan and Somalia suggests that some see little difference between american soldiers and aid workers. Anything that can be done to draw a clear distinction between development policy and military foreign policy can’t help but improve the situation.

If you think the concept of a Department of Development is a good one you can use the link in the widget below to vote.

Old Choices Come Back to Haunt NGOs in Afghanistan.

The Ghosts of Alexander have a great post on the The Politicization and Militarization of Aid to Afghanistan. As the ghosts quite rightly point out the process did not begin in 2001. It began much earlier and NGOs are still feeling the impact today.

To quote the ghosts again, “All it takes is for either the US, the Taliban, the locals or the central government to see it as political and becomes so...” Unfortunately that means your organization’s carefully crafted, acceptance based, security strategy disappears along with your perceived neutrality.

Read the whole post to see how your NGO’s choice of friends in the 80’s might be affecting your security today.

Military Humanitarian Relief?

Mother Jones has an interesting article that outlines the tensions between NGOs and military forces' involvement in what the US military calls "stability operations." While it should be nothing new to the experienced NGO security practitioner it is a good primer for those who may not understand the debate.

UNDP Worker Arrested with Pistol - Snarky Comments Follow

This article about a UNDP worker being arrested while carrying a pistol is interesting but its the comments that stand out. Some are funny... some just sad. What does it say about acceptance as a security strategy in Sri Lanka? Have we been doing a good job communicating what it is we do and who we are?

A Calmer Look at Fitna, the Movie

Viewed by some in the Islamic world as symbols of western influence INGOs are vulnerable to the sometimes violent backlash over perceived insults to Islam. Attacks on INGO compounds after the release of the now infamous Danish cartoons and the erroneous TIME magazine article claiming that an American military prison guard had flushed a copy of the Quran down a toilet highlight just how vulnerable we are. Most physical security measures cannot survive a sustained assault by hundreds of angry protesters. Host country security personnel are generally reluctant to open fire on their fellow countrymen nor would most INGOs want them to. Frequently underpaid and undermanned security forces may lack the breadth and depth required to protect all the potential targets in their country. All of which begs the question of how do organizations whose security relies primarily upon acceptance maintain security when they are no longer accepted?

Unfortunately I don't have any easy answers but I am hoping the following clip by Radio Netherlands Worldwide will help cooler heads prevail if the Geert Wilders 'Fitna' film is released. The version below is in English but there are Arabic and Indonesian versions as well. Link to these, email copies to friends, show them at your next staff meeting and maybe, just maybe, we can counter some of the hype and propaganda that Geert Wilder thrives on.

Very rarely has a film sparked off as much pre-release controversy as Dutch MP Geert Wilder’s ‘Fitna, the movie’. Even without knowing what’s in it, 'Fitna’ has got the world asking questions. Questions about the man who made it and his motives, about the country he lives in where his film is allowed. Questions about that country’s government – which issues warnings about the film but does nothing to stop it. And questions about the position of Muslims in The Netherlands. The central character in this film is also struggling with these questions, and decides to travel to The Netherlands in search of answers.

Other Stuff

Subscribe to Patronus in a feedreader
Subscribe to Patronus Analytical RSS Feed by Email

Low on bandwidth? Try this low graphics version

Lijit Search

Bloggers' Rights at EFF Global Voices: The World is Talking, Are You Listening?

Support CC - 2007

Creative Commons License
This work by Kevin Toomer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.
Jun 2008
May 2008
Apr 2008
Mar 2008
Feb 2008
Jan 2008
Dec 2007
Nov 2007
Oct 2007
Sep 2007
Aug 2007
Jul 2007