EISF’s Autumn Forum: Coordination and the Future of Security Risk Management

Published: November 19, 2019 | By Aisling Sweeney

By Aisling Sweeney, Communications Officer, EISF

Hosted by the World Food Programme (WFP) in Rome, Italy, EISF’s second biannual forum of 2019 took place on the 26th and 27th September. A record number of participants attended the two-day conference, and EISF was pleased to welcome some of our newest members from Greenpeace International, Habitat for Humanity International and the United States Department for International Development (USAID).

At the forum, a series of open and closed sessions explored contextual and theoretical topics from across the sector. From working with the private sector, government and military and tracking duty of care commitments, to the current situation in Venezuela, the forum provided a platform for lively debate and valuable learning. This blog piece focuses on three sessions: ‘EISF Paper Review: The Future of Humanitarian Security in Fragile Contexts’, ‘The Future of Humanitarian Security Risk Management’, and ‘Working with the UN’ to offer an insight into EISF’s latest forum.  


EISF Paper Review: The Future of Humanitarian Security in Fragile Contexts

In March 2014, EISF published a report entitled The Future of Humanitarian Security in Fragile Contexts. The paper offered an analysis of ‘transformational factors affecting humanitarian action in the coming decade’. Five years on from its release, this forum session commented on the accuracy of its forecast.

5 key considerations emerged from the 2014 report, beginning with the politicisation of aid. Although this phenomenon has, for a long time, pervaded the sector, the paper hypothesised that this trend would intensify in the coming years. A range of recent developments support this assertion, such as the redirection of humanitarian funding into other ministries like defence, and increasing discontent within the domestic portions of traditional donors. This refers to an attitude of ‘Why do we give away funding when we have increasing problems at home?’.

Related to the extension of governmental oversight and control over assistance, the session explored the theme of compliance. In recent years, donors have been by seen by many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as being extremely stringent about funding. Some NGOs reportedly feel that they are ‘guilty until proven innocent’.

The 2014 paper additionally identified humanitarian deconflictions as a consideration for the coming years. Indeed, in the not too distant past, humanitarian actors provided warring parties with, for example, the locations of hospitals in the area so that they can avoid them during attacks. In recent years, however, a trend has emerged of such information, which is at the disposal of humanitarian actors, being used by warring parties for deliberate, targeted attacks.  These combined evolutions might suggest a broader need for NGOs to reconsider and adapt their relationships with governments, to ensure of the safe delivery of assistance.

The fourth trend discussed was the new technology paradox. Indeed, digital money (e.g. via mobiles, electronic vouchers and cards) is a central technological advancement that has infiltrated humanitarian areas over the past five years. Whilst such advancements can help to fill gaps in community assistance, they can also present very real disruptions to the security and welfare of both those delivering and receiving humanitarian assistance – for example, in the case of cyber interference with electronic data systems.

Finally, participants reflected on the pertinence of the 2014 paper’s key questions in operational security for the coming decade. In particular, are risk and security still viewed within the framework of a particular programme or project, or are they viewed as something long-term? Is security risk management more flexible, anticipatory and context-specific, or do standard operating procedures hold the same role that they did five years ago?


The Future of Humanitarian Security Risk Management

Continuing on this theme, the next session offered an overview of the key drivers for humanitarian security risk management and the wider humanitarian sector for the next five to ten years. Mirroring the format of the reflective session beforehand, five key drivers of change were identified looking ahead from 2019.

The first driver identified in the session was resourcing and business models. In terms of resourcing, previous forecasting had suggested the emergence of new donors and the growing role of innovative finance in humanitarian relief. In contrast to this forecasting, and in contrast to the ‘flexible and anticipatory’ security called for at the end of the previous session, there hasn’t been a huge change in this area as the same few ‘big donors’ continue to dominate the sector. When new funding is sourced, it remains very local (for example, Yemen, Syria and Turkey). The challenges of these trends, looking to the future, will revolve around an increasing link between security and field projects, but with less funds to fill gaps and develop skills.

In relation to the politicisation of aid discussed in the previous session, the next theme discussed was the global political and diplomatic environment. In the context of donor states, we are seeing a trend of lessening creative ambiguity on the part of humanitarian agencies. Interventions in Syria have set a new precedent, which sees organisations asking states for permission to respond to humanitarian emergencies. Intervening INGOs are not exempt from political tensions and allegiances but are now ‘caught in the middle’ of a return to great power geopolitics (for example, the United States’ strategic offensive against China). In the future, this trend could either continue to rise – bringing growing mistrust in international actors, or it could improve – due to a shift away from the current era of populism.

In continuation of the trends identified in the previous session, in terms of detractors and supporters, 2019 has seen stronger and sharper anti-aid narratives – for example, the growing critique of humanitarians as naïve ‘do-gooders’. As with the politicisation of aid, this could lead to a loss of perspective and trust and could have a direct impact on NGOs’ acceptance. However, in response, this trend could encourage greater support from ‘true believers’.

The fourth consideration identified was legal developments in the aid sector. Crucially, these developments involve increasingly ‘scary’ legislation with increasingly personal implications. This includes the growth of counter-terrorism legislation, which has limited case law, and targets individuals with repercussions that follow them for the rest of their lives. Such developments lead to misaligned incentives for aid agencies to act, meaning that the default assumption is that it’s safer to do nothing. Faced with this, the risks involved in doing nothing must be illustrated. Finally, NGOs should ensure they are asking the ‘right questions’ from legal advisors. Rather than asking ‘What are the risks of doing this?’, humanitarians should ask ‘How can we mitigate the risks of doing this?’.

To close, participants were prompted to consider how technology might be being used ‘to its own end’. Whilst the previous session demonstrated how technological developments have brought new threats to the security of humanitarian responses, looking ahead from 2019, an additional concern is the use of technology due solely to the presumption of progress and improved efficiency. Moving forward, the humanitarian sector must get better at assessing the actual utility of technological versus traditional or manual solutions.


Working with the UN

In this session, participants were able to hear from and engage with representatives from a range of UN agencies, in both security and other capacities. Given the NGO audience, much of the conversation revolved around the effectiveness of the UN-NGO security coordination mechanism, Saving Lives Together (SLT).

Participants fed back to SLT representatives that they, as well as their colleagues at field level, sensed a mutual lack of understanding on what being a member of SLT means in practice. Since SLT’s practice in the field relies mostly on interpersonal relationships between NGOs and UN representatives, the system is less accessible for those who do not have relationships in place with the relevant UN actors. However, it was clear that neither party wishes to introduce a legally binding aspect to the relationship. Participants therefore agreed that to improve collaboration, expectations of SLT must be clarified, on both sides, and the benefits of being a member should be clearly identified and communicated.

The question was also raised about which parties are invited to the SLT table. Participants reported concerns with the exclusion of local partners from SLT discussions. Considering the added value of the framework at the field level and the growing localisation of assistance, integrating local NGOs seems all the more essential. SLT representatives agreed that this is an important discussion, which must be addressed within the framework going forwards.

Relatedly, the session also addressed issues like the role of NGO coordination bodies, and the implications of integrated missions on NGOs’ acceptance among local communities. Whilst increased collaboration between humanitarian actors can be both necessary and beneficial, it can also contribute to confusion and blurred lines between organisations’ mandates, principles, and operations.

Overall, the session concluded that there is a great deal of unexploited potential in UN-NGO coordination at present, and with greater collaboration, we can hope to see improvement in the coming years.


Many thanks to all of those who spoke at, attended, hosted and supported this event. We look forward to the discussions at our next members’ forum in March.

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