Is the aid sector’s security approach discriminatory against aid workers with minority profiles?

Publication Date: 
Thursday, September 20, 2018

An aid worker’s security is influenced by who they are, where they are, and their role and organisation. A failure to account for how diversity in personal profiles impacts an individual’s security places not only the affected aid worker at risk, but also threatens their employing organisation. 

Despite this diversity in risk, recent research by the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF) on diversity and security risk management has found that decision-makers in aid organisations fear making security decisions that could be perceived as discriminatory towards a particular personal profile. This is especially the case for staff with minority profiles, e.g., individuals who identify as LGBTQI, living with a disability, or of minority ethnicities, as their concerns and needs may not be understood or addressed by decision-makers.


For many aid organisations, this means that they do not consider diversity systematically within their security risk management framework. If issues arise due to a staff member’s personal profile, many decision-makers may choose to deal with the issue on an ad hoc basis. This ad hoc approach, however, could be considered unjustifiably discriminatory according to European Union legislation.

What the law says

European Union (EU) anti-discrimination law requires aid organisations to avoid engaging in discrimination against staff members due to their personal characteristics -

for example, their religion, race, biological sex, or sexual orientation. EU legislation categorises discrimination as:

  • direct; or
  • indirect.

Direct discrimination applies to a particular individual, i.e., “where one person is treated less favourably than another is, has been or would be treated in a comparable situation, on any of the grounds” of disability, age, religion, belief or sexual orientation.

Indirect discrimination is an apparently neutral provision, criterion or practice that puts persons of a particular profile at a particular disadvantage compared to others.

Direct discrimination can never be justified.

Indirect discrimination can be justified if the relevant “provision, criterion or practice is objectively justified by a legitimate aim and the means of achieving that aim are appropriate and necessary.” The provision must also be proportionate.

What should organisations do?

Organisations that do not systematically address diversity in security risk management and engage in an ad hoc approach are most likely engaging in direct discrimination. For example: if they are putting in place mitigation measures that apply solely to one person rather than transparently and systematically communicating measures in security plans, in line with appropriate policy, and applying these measures to all those who may exhibit similar risk profiles.

In given circumstances, duty of care obligations could compel aid organisations to make decisions that appear discriminatory against a particular type of profile. This can arguably be justified so long as it is done transparently, systematically, proportionately and on the basis of sound security information in pursuit of a legitimate aim.

Discrimination of any kind, however, should be avoided. This can be achieved more easily by considering from the outset how personal characteristics can impact security. Policies and plans must be inclusive, and decision-makers must be trained on duty of care, equality, privacy, and non-discrimination obligations.

“My organisation began with staff training on gender and security for beneficiaries before thinking about how we should incorporate the issues of staff with diverse profiles into security policies. We found that having had training that sensitised us to the issues faced by individuals, we were able to think more carefully and strategically about the fact that we all have different security needs. It also meant that we didn’t have to rely on staff members to ‘out themselves’ in any way to the group. As a group […] we were able to sit down together and devise a strategy that we were all happy with. We made sure to include everyone on the project, from drivers to administrators and frontline staff. For us, it was the training that got us on the same page rather than the policy.”

 Case study from Madagascar (excerpt from EISF research paper)

Learnings from the research indicate that decisions made on the basis of an aid worker’s personal profile should be made in an open, transparent and consultative manner with the involvement of the individual affected whenever possible and according to well-established policy.


EISF’s research found that a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to staff personal profiles, particularly in relation to hidden characteristics, was common in the aid sector. However, by not addressing diversity in risk - or by doing so only in an ad hoc manner - aid organisations may be contributing to discriminatory decisions that negatively impact aid workers, particularly those with minority profiles.

By considering how to address diversity in their security risk management, aid organisations would be taking a positive step towards meeting their legal obligations as well as their ethical commitments to equality, diversity and inclusion.

To learn more, including more information about training, please see EISF’s new research paper “Managing the Security of Aid Workers with Diverse Profiles”.

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