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Managing the Security of Aid Workers with Diverse Profiles

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Executive Summary

An aid worker’s personal security is impacted by the interplay between where the aid worker is, who they are, and their role and organisation. As employers, aid organisations have a duty of care to take all reasonable measures to protect their staff from foreseeable risks, including those that emerge due to an aid worker’s personal characteristics – for example, biological sex, gender, ethnicity, cognitive and physical abilities, sexual orientation, etc.

When personal identity characteristics interact with both the context and the aid worker’s role and organisation, the individual’s employing nongovernmental organisation (NGO) has a duty of care to inform staff of any resulting risk and to put in place measures to mitigate and respond to these risks. The failure to understand how personal profile characteristics impact personal security can have implications for the security of both the team as a whole and for the individual aid worker, as well as causing serious security, legal and reputational issues for employing organisations.

EISF has, therefore, undertaken the following research to better understand whether diversity is systematically addressed by aid organisations within their security risk management systems, and what challenges aid organisations face in relation to managing the security of aid workers while being mindful of their diversity.

The primary objectives of this research were to identify examples of good practice, and then provide guidance to aid organisations on how to balance staff security and duty of care obligations while still respecting their employees’ rights to privacy, equality and inclusion.

This research paper is targeted at staff members within NGOs who have a responsibility for ensuring the security and wellbeing of staff members - for example, security focal points, human resource (HR) specialists, and senior managers. This research paper is not targeted at aid workers with minority profiles. All recommendations in this document must be adapted to the specific needs and capacity of each organisation.

Through a literature review, survey and key informant interviews, the research has primarily found that although most NGOs do not systematically address diversity of profiles in security risk management, some organisations do so in a non-systematic way, whereas others are particularly supportive of certain profiles. The findings suggest that a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach to staff identity, especially where personal characteristics are hidden, is common in security risk management approaches within many aid organisations.

This can partly be the result of the sector’s commitment to equality, which has meant that many organisations approach their staff as a homogenous group. The research has found that while the principle of equality is extremely important, perceiving all aid workers as the same does not allow for effective security risk management. Responses to the research from aid workers with minority profiles evidence a desire on the part of these individuals that identity and risk be considered more openly and systematically by aid organisations as part of their security risk management policies and procedures. Identifying different risks for different staff and putting in place differentiated mitigation measures does not suggest that staff are unequal but rather that they are different.

The research, furthermore, found that aid workers who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex (LGBTQI) or as being a person with a disability are more concerned about internal threats than external threats to their security. A number of contributors to this study voiced that while at work they feel they need to conceal certain aspects of their identity to protect themselves, which in some cases has had a profound impact on their mental health.

The fundamental challenge NGOs face, however, when trying to integrate diversity into their security risk management policies and practices is the concern that security decisions made on the basis of personal profiles could be perceived as a possible infringement of aid workers’ rights to privacy and non-discrimination.

In high-risk situations, duty of care obligations may compel decision-makers within organisations to ask personal profile questions, which staff may refuse to answer, and make decisions that discriminate based on personal profiles if done transparently, systematically, proportionately, and on the basis of sound security information in pursuit of a legitimate aim. A failure to consider personal profiles, where there is a specific known risk, can equally bring an employer before a court of law for failing to meet duty of care obligations, should an incident occur.

When it comes to internal threats, security focal points interviewed as part of this research remain unsure of their role in managing risks emerging from harassment and discrimination, and report not having the knowledge and skills to mitigate security risks for different profiles, including ensuring these are addressed in security trainings. Security focal points and other key decision-makers, including HR staff, would benefit from being appropriately trained and empowered to support staff with a diverse range of personal profiles.

Decision-makers should consider how they can diversify representation in their organisation, particularly among senior leadership and on boards of trustees, to ensure that the concerns of a diverse range of employees are considered in organisational culture and processes, including security risk management. This should be complemented with a supportive structure that allows employees with security concerns about their personal profile to seek security advice with confidence.

Fortunately, there is evidence of a growing understanding within the aid sector that personal identity profiles should play an important role in aid organisations’ security risk management. This is supported by recent learnings from the #AidToo movement. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of clarity on how to tackle this issue. Through the publication of this research paper, EISF hopes to improve understanding on how diversity in aid worker profiles can impact personal and organisational security, and to provide practical recommendations to key stakeholders in the aid sector on how to develop an inclusive security risk management system.