“Yes, and not all security makes you safe,” I once said. It sounds interesting, but is it true? And if it is, then have we, in humanitarian security, found different ways of doing things (or not doing things) that others might want to learn from? These are some thoughts, developed with help from many friends in the sector, on what humanitarian security might offer the rest of the world.


Acceptance first, deterrence last… or not at all

The first thing we learn about humanitarian security is that who you are matters, because what you believe will drive your behaviours and be fundamental in determining how you are perceived. Humanitarian security at its best has empathy, you put yourself in others’ shoes, whoever they are, and see it from their perspective. Empathy is very different to sympathy, it is part of being truly contextually aware at a visceral level. It is a critical element in achieving what is perhaps humanitarian security’s most defining characteristic – the pursuit of ‘acceptance’, as distinct from ‘hearts and minds’. It may be that security is easier if you’re securing something beneficial, deeper levels of acceptance can transcend that simple transactional and temporary toleration, in part because of respect for purpose.

It understands that creating a protective barrier between you and the people in the area you are working is not always the most effective form of developing and maintaining staff safety and security. This barrier, like those weapons we also avoid, are the things that do not always make you safe. And sometimes they do and sometimes community good-will just isn’t enough – knowing that and how to weave the blend of strategies is fundamental to the humanitarian approach to security. Mitigation measures must be based on the perceptions others have of us not on who we think we are, a level of self-awareness not universally achieved it is true, but characteristic of humanitarian security at its best.

In 2012 I had the chance to persuade a legal client organisation which was going to work in the Niger Delta, to abandon plans to entrust their security to an armed private security company, and to work with the local communities, to communicate, to take precautions, but be able to listen to what was happening so that they could avoid problems. Thankfully they listened and in three years suffered no incidents, and saved a lot of money, too. It was not just about choosing not to be armed, it was everything else here too, and knowing that you have to really learn about your context, then go back and learn some more. To understand and to be understood.

Sharp eyed corporate security dudes may have noticed that it was much cheaper than traditional security, too.

We share and collaborate

As a cohort, a ‘sector’, we like sharing, don’t we? All for one and pass the rice? The principle of humanitarianism as prime motivation, beneath which all other factors are sublimated?  Perhaps that is a little idealistic, but there is a genuine open collaboration: less competitive pressure between us means that we can afford to be more open with our information, and share insights more openly.

There is a risk that this could be eroded of course, but for now fora enable fair information transfer. Look at the European Integrated Security Forum (EISF)for example, where Lisa Reilly and her team work continuously to stimulate cross agency sharing and cooperation. Consider the work of Insecurity Insights and INSO, striving to record, understand and share global and context specific security information and make it accessible and useful to humanitarians. The way this is done is I think unique to the humanitarian community, and something we might consider exporting from the sector, if only we could think of how that might work in a world with more commercial and political pressures?

We are inclusive, because we know culture eats process for breakfast

As well as that neighbourly approach to share knowledge and gain herd advantage, an organisation’s humanitarian security at its best includes everyone – it should not be a separate group of people that organise and run all things ‘security’, it is a whole single group working together with a co-ordinating team who are linked into the organisation at all levels. We know implicitly that a single security officer is not enough and we strive to educate and engage the whole team.

Engagement means a positive security culture, with ownership seeded through the work teams, and in this way security does not become solely about procedures and policies, but must include the ‘human factors’ in its design and implementation. We know that security is about people; don’t allow ‘hard’ security (protection barriers, which do have a place) to obscure the view or block out the sounds that we can use to help us understand and be understood.

We have security to enable programmes, and we base that on the dynamics of the context

I have said that “often ‘security’ isn’t even about security.” We know that the purpose of good security is about enabling programmes, not creating security rules for the sake of security rules, and that it is an enabling orientated approach – a proactive, facilitative attitude.

In being programme-focussed, it makes sense to prioritise the second thing we learn about in humanitarian security, and that is understanding the place. This is not unique to humanitarian security, but perhaps the way we can do this at our best, through being open to contact with the people, gives us the access to vital information that more ‘protection’ or barrier-based security cannot achieve? An ability to ‘sense and respond’, so long as we are open to sense and willing to respond.

We are far from perfect

And with all of this I know that the metaphorical highways of humanitarianism are littered with the all too real ‘burned out’ carcasses of cumulatively and traumatically stressed aid workers, so maybe therein lies an area we can look to the world to do better at? And this matters not only because it matters to each individual who has suffered burnout, but because stressed people make poor quality safety and security decisions. Boiled frogs* are bad for programmes and bad for security, so let’s continue the trend now visible in looking into the functional wellbeing of all aid workers.

*It’s a long story, drop me a line if you don’t know it. We don’t really boil frogs.

steve-mccann-300x300-2Steve McCann is the Managing Director of Safer Edge. Steve is an experienced and practical security and programme support specialist in the humanitarian and development sectors, with additional commercial, UN and military experience.