The Role of International Aid Agencies in Protecting National Humanitarian Staff

Publication Date: 
Monday, August 10, 2015

This guest blog post comes to us from Raquel Vazquez Llorente. Raquel is a researcher at the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF), where she coordinates projects and conducts research to help humanitarian organisations gain safer access to communities affected by conflict and emergencies. To hear Raquel discuss the security implications of new information and communications technologies for humanitarian actors, listen to her interview on the ATHA podcast.

Is humanitarian aid work becoming more dangerous? At first glance, the figures in the preview of findings from the forthcoming Aid Worker Security Report seem to bear good news. In comparison with 2013, a year that set an all-time record of violence against humanitarians, major attacks on humanitarian workers declined by over a third in 2014. However the decrease in reported incidents does not guarantee lower levels of risk. In fact, the preview of findings for this year suggests that the registered decrease of roughly 30% in 2014 is mainly due to “reduced or reconfigured operational presence (…) with fewer aid workers deployed to field locations deemed insecure”. As a result of greater insecurity and limited access, risk management measures have led many 
aid agencies to increasingly rely on local partner organizations for the implementation of programmes. While the localization of aid for sustainability and empowerment has long been on the humanitarian agenda – indeed, “localization” and “nationalization” of humanitarianism are recurring topics in the World Humanitarian Summit consultations – the last two decades have witnessed a significant transfer of risk toward local and national organizations without a corresponding transfer of capacity to mitigate those risks.

In terms of funding, the humanitarian financing system is still the feudal grant of traditional international agencies. Between 41% and 62% of the humanitarian assistance that comes from government donors goes to multilateral organizations, mostly UN agencies. Of the total of almost USD 19 billion that governments spend in humanitarian assistance, only a small percentage goes to NGOs as first-level recipients, and if we look at the funding that is directly channeled through national NGOs, it amounted to only USD 46.6 million in 2014. That is roughly 1.2% of the total given to NGOs, and 0.2% of the total humanitarian funding. While international agencies eventually channel more funding to NGOs, the growth of the humanitarian system in the last decade has translated into a multilayered system of contracts and subcontracts, making it difficult to “follow the money” and obtain aggregate data beyond first-level recipients.

Despite their slight weight in the humanitarian financing system, national NGOs are often the ones ultimately implementing programs on the ground. This shift to local partners is even more acute in high-risk contexts where international humanitarian agencies have difficulty operating. Awaiting the publication of this years’ Aid Worker Security Report and further disclosure of the figures, we expect the analysis of last year’s incidents to confirm previous reports in revealing that most of the victims of attacks are national employees, i.e. those providing aid within their own countries and employed either by international or national organisations. In 2014, 87% of the victims of violence were national staff.

However, statistical evidence does not accurately capture many of the incidents that local staff and national organizations encounter. A number of factors taint the information coming from national organisations, notably, but not limited to, disparities in their reporting capacity, different perceptions of risk compared to international organisations, and distinct approaches to security risk management. As a result, many security incidents involving local staff still go unreported, despite some limited efforts of international aid agencies to strengthen the reporting mechanisms of their local partners.

With humanitarian access becoming more difficult to achieve by international agencies in certain highly insecure contexts, many of these agencies consciously seek others to carry out critical activities. Three quarters of all major attacks against aid operations in 2013 took place in just five countries: Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan, Pakistan and Sudan. With the exception of the latter, which has been replaced by the Central African Republic in 2014, these contexts continue to top the list of most violent settings for aid workers. Not surprisingly, aid delivery in these conflict settings is often channelled through national and local partners.

However, the increased reliance on local partners, and the subsequent risk transfer from international humanitarian organisations to national aid agencies, has not always translated into better security risk management within the partnership. Although international aid agencies have started to recognize that their risk profile differs from the risk profile of their local partners, and that each has differing capacity to manage their own vulnerabilities, international humanitarian organisations and their local partners haven’t yet found a mutual language around security risk management. This not only affects reporting from national NGOs, but also their capacity to manage risks.

Research published by the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF) has tried to make a first step towards a wider debate on partnerships with local organisations and security risk management. EISF’s report aimed to clear some of the confusion around the responsibilities that international NGOs hold towards their partners, and tried to provide a better understanding of the legal and ethical responsibilities of international NGOs towards supporting the protection of their national implementing partners.

International NGOs are transferring risk down the line. However, they are not transferring the capacity required to manage the particular risks faced by local partners in a manner that addresses national agencies’ needs and risk culture. Different contexts require different approaches to security, and mainstreaming security risk management from international NGOs to local partners may not be a lasting solution to sustainably mitigate vulnerabilities and achieve better protection of national and local staff. The disconnect between international NGOs’ approaches and understanding of security risk management, and that of their local partners, is partially a product of a lack of understanding of both the particular risks national staff encounter in delivering humanitarian assistance, and of the traditional mitigating measures that national agencies may employ.

International NGOs need first to understand local partners’ attitudes to security risk management, including the threats, their vulnerabilities and traditional mitigation measures; and then identify their knowledge gaps and the factors that can drive organisational change. Without bridging this disconnect first, any future attempt by international aid agencies to build the protection capacity of local partners will likely be fruitless and short-lived.

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