Investing in capacity-building for field-based security focal points

Published: January 28, 2020 | By Michael Blyth

In this EISF blog series, running throughout January and February, we explore the topic of security training. From traditional HEAT to virtual reality, we’ll be sharing experiences from both participants and trainers.


Children and Christian Aid staff taking part in activities at the Child Friendly Space run by Christian Aid’s partner Gana Unnayan Kendra (GUK), in Jamtoli camp, Bangladesh. Photo: Adam Finch

By Michael Blyth, Chief Operating Officer, RSM Corporation

Field-based security focal points (FB-SFPs) are responsible for the tactical and operational day-to-day management and coordination of actions to control their team’s exposure to security risks. Where clusters of humanitarian aid and development organisations work, it is common for FB-SFPs to form their own loose community of practice. This allows those working within an important, but often ill-defined and under-supported, remit to share experiences and information on security risk management (SRM).

While such a community can exponentially increase the individual’s capacity by drawing upon the knowledge and experiences of others, it is not enough for organisations to rely upon such informal mechanisms. In order to fulfil their duty of care towards staff, organisations must ensure that all of their FB-SFPs are given equal and effective opportunities for learning and development.

Gaps and challenges for field-based SFPs

The FB-SFP role is pivotal in identifying and addressing risks to people, facilities, assets, information and operations. Their work also helps to preserve the reputation of their activity, their organisation, and external stakeholders such as donors, implementing partners and local counterparts.

The knowledge and skill requirements of the job are layered, with a common nucleus of need consistently found across organisations, activities and operating environments. How the role varies is dependent on a range of factors, including the influence of internal and external stakeholders, the environments in which work is performed, and emergent threats – all of which can generate either unforeseen or consistent risks, thereby driving a range of proactive or reactive risk management measures.

The FB-SFP can, therefore, be seen as working within a continuum of vulnerability and potential disruption that is characterised by, at one extreme, great dynamism where risks can emerge with little forewarning, and at the other end, commonplace factors where risk is more or less consistent. This demands an approach to field security risk management which must be scalable, understanding that no two FB-SFPs are alike, and that risk conditions are inherently fluid.

Formalising capacity-building: the content

The qualifications and experience that FB-SFPs bring to their role are also wide-ranging. Some have prior military, police or professional security knowledge and skills, while – as is more typically the case – many assume the role as a secondary function, with little to no security risk management training or experience. This variation presents a challenge to the SFP, whose influence either protects from, or exposes their team to, risk, as well as the staff who are left vulnerable by an inexperienced security lead, and the organisation, whose activities and reputation are ultimately affected by disruptive events.

The case for a minimum standard of training and capacity building within the aid and development sector for SFPs – and the risk management practitioner community at large – is well-recognised. The complexity of the role, even as a secondary function in a relatively benign environment, requires a defined competency framework focused on core areas of commonly required knowledge and skill.

Core areas that might be included for FB-SFPs include leadership techniques within emergency management; risk analysis and critical event planning; emergency communications; stakeholder and interagency engagement, and travel risk management. In addition, ethical standards and compliance is an increasingly important topic, and the SFP must understand the mechanisms by which to monitor and maintain their team’s security risk management system.

Beyond this core of learning, maintaining the ability to self-determine additional areas of learning is key to ensure the approach is sufficiently nuanced to meet the unique needs of the individual SFP and their organisation. The exercise of analysing what should be regarded as core rather than elective learning can be an extremely useful and thought-provoking management discussion at the organisational level, particularly where multiple SFPs are working in a diverse range of international environments.

Supportive learning environments that offer further opportunities for growth can address just-in-time needs or reflect the specific needs of different operating environments or emergent threats. This supportive and flexible learning might cover:

  • Family liaison during a crisis
  • Hibernation, relocation and evacuations
  • Bomb threats
  • Civil disorder risk management
  • Selecting hotels and guesthouses
  • Planning for and responding to natural disasters
  • Fraud, corruption and ethical violations management and investigations
  • Medical emergency management, including mass casualty incidents;
  • How to activate the incident management team (IMT) during an emergency

Formalising capacity-building: the means

In developing an approach to up-skill these key staff members, educational and language differences must be considered. Training must also be accompanied by exercising the skills learnt, to ensure that standards and practices are reinforced. Training without exercising will likely fail to build a strong understanding and competency at the outset and will likely result in knowledge and skills fading over time. As such, a supportive programme must be developed to enable the SFP to put their knowledge into action, not only as an individual but ideally within their local IMT as well.

The question of how to implement a FB-SFP training and capacity building programme requires serious thinking. Considerations may include whether to conduct in-person or online training and exercises and whether the programme should be formally recognised through external accrediting bodies. External certifications or accreditations can add value not only by motivating participation but also by providing credibility.

Organisations also need to determine the advantages and disadvantages of either authoring or influencing the content. They should analyse the cost versus benefit of outsourcing versus internally developing a programme that meets content and language needs, and that can withstand external stakeholder scrutiny in the event of legal action. Organisations may elect to outsource the research, development, production and (if applicable) translation of the programme, drawing on content that can be personalised sufficiently for their learner group. Outsourcing can also provide the advantage of creating an arms-length liability distance between the organisation and the author, without necessarily undermining the value of the programme.

Conclusion

Regardless of the approach used, FB-SFPs hold an important position within organisational resilience. Acting as the voice of, and driving-force for, SRM and emergency response at the project implementation level for a specific location or activity, they play an important role in the organisation’s ability to control risk. Having a learning programme for FB-SFPs demonstrates an investment in human capacity, as well as a focused effort to protect both their mission and their donors’ contributions. An investment in any SFP is an investment in protecting people, operations, facilities and assets, business and the reputational interests of organisations working in remote, challenging and volatile operating environments. As such, investment in FB-SFPs should be regarded not as draining budgets, but as enabling the continuation and growth of an organisation’s activities.