INTERNATIONAL AID: In The Line of Fire

LUCY MAGGS

In addition they have to adhere to security policies in place. We stress to staff that they are not there as an individual, they represent an organisation.

We try and strike a balance between risk and what we need to do. But we are essentially cautious. If something happens to a member of staff it affects our ability to help people on the ground.

Local staff have an insight into situations but project managers must be very careful not to ask them to do anything they wouldn't do themselves because while UK staff can be evacuated, local staff cannot.

Gareth Owen, emergency adviser for Asia, Save the Children

WHAT THE PEOPLE IN AID CODE SAYS ABOUT SECURITY

The People in Aid Code gives examples of best practice in human resources management of aid and development workers.

One of the key principles covers staff security and well-being.

The key points are:

- Programme plans include written assessment of security and health risks specific to country or region

- Before the assignment begins, field staff and families accompanying them receive oral and written briefings on country or regional security, emergency evacuation procedures and insurance arrangements

- Briefing before an assignment includes training in the use and maintenance of any vehicle, equipment or procedure essential to personal, family and team safety and security

- Briefings are updated in the field when new vehicles or equipment are purchased or procedures amended

- The agency maintains records of work related injuries, accidents and fatalities, and uses these records to help seems and reduce future risk to field staff

- Security, health, insurance provision and emergency evacuation procedures are regularly reviewed and information to staff is updated

- Field staff and families accompanying them know how to identify health risks in the country or region, how to protect against illness, injury and how to obtain support or medical treatment following incidents.

For many aid agency workers, life-threatening situations have become an occupational hazard. But with the right training and preparation, staff can be kept out of harm's way, writes Lucy Maggs.

In Somalia in 1995, aid workers were targeted by rebel forces. Medical aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres took the previously unheard of step of employing armed guards to protect its field staff.

"It was a very frightening and unpredictable situation,

says Jacqui Tong, who has worked as a nurse for the organisation in trouble spots including Somalia and Afghanistan. "We had to dismiss a local member of staff because of drink and drugs use, but he came back and shot at one of us, only missing them by about 30 centimetres. If we had evacuated fighting could have broken out in the town, so we battened down the hatches, confining ourselves to camp. No one else was allowed to come and go except a few familiar key staff."

Aid work can be dangerous and unpredictable, and it seems to be getting more so. Many agencies believe there has been an increase in the number of civilians and aid workers targeted in wars and unrest. But there is a lot organisations can do to try and make sure that staff are prepared for all situations. Having a security policy in place to ensure that staff receive a written assessment of security and health risks, emergency evacuation procedures and insurance arrangements is essential.

Heather Hughes, security adviser, devised Oxfam's protection policy.

In order to make it as comprehensive as possible it was divided into two sections. The first contains general principles such as "the security of workers is of higher priority than assets

and that staff must never be involved with armed guards. The second half covers security management, emphasising the importance of staff looking at the context in which they are working and understanding economic, social, cultural and political issues.

"Managers must then establish the risks staff are likely to face, for example, car jacking or kidnapping, and devise a security strategy, assessing vulnerability to these threats and how to reduce it,

she says. This may involve controlling factors such as where staff travel to and when they are meant to be back.

The stability of situations is measured on a scale of one to five by Oxfam. Level one means everything is fine, although Hughes says this is rarely applicable to the countries it operates in. Level two means the situation is slightly unstable, three means staff may have to keep a low profile, four means some staff need to be evacuated and five means projects in the area should be evacuated.

Hughes says, however, that one of the hardest tasks for managers in charge of security, is deciding when to move through the levels. "You may think while sitting behind your desk in the UK that you wouldn't want to stay somewhere where you regularly hear gunfire, but people's tolerance builds. If they're involved in the job they often want to stay. It can be hard to recognise when a situation is deteriorating."

According to Hughes, when managers first arrive in the field they need to develop their own benchmarks for when they should move between levels.

If a situation gets too bad and staff don't want to come back, head office can tell them to evacuate. But they cannot force staff to stay or return to the field if they feel a situation is too volatile.

A security policy will outline the information that should be provided to staff before leaving for the field. "Information is key,

says Tong.

Before sending workers out to areas, agencies give them extensive briefings about the country they are going to and the work they will be doing. These include information about any cultural, political and social issues that may affect workers.

While in Afghanistan, Tong worked on a project set up in a former Taliban stronghold, where local staff and the agency's female international representatives found it hard to work together.

She says the situation in Afghanistan was quite difficult for western women. "We had to wear headscarves, couldn't smoke in public and obviously couldn't drink. I didn't feel comfortable walking around in public alone,

she says.

In an attempt to avoid potential problems in the field, many aid agencies provide workers with detailed information about the region. RedR, which finds engineering, logistics and programme staff for aid agencies, puts recruits in touch with other members who have recently returned from the same area so they can get an insiders' view of what it will be like. It also makes sure they have been told about security and insurance by the employer and that they know who to report to and who is responsible for their welfare in the region.

Nelly Gentric Kelly, senior officer for recruitment and placement at the organisation, says that the information given varies from agency to agency. "Some provide staff with comprehensive leaflets about the area they are going to and what they will be doing. Others do less because they don't have the resources."

Field staff must also be fully informed about the work they are undertaking and, in turn, communicate this to local people. "The main part of our protection is our reputation and our actions. We have to be seen to be doing what we say we will do,

says Tong.

To maintain the security of aid workers, local people must trust agency staff and understand their work is essential to building this. About 18 months ago in Aceh, Indonesia, Oxfam's local relationships were key in the rescue of two workers who were being held and tortured by the police.

Two vehicles initially travelling together split up but only one arrived at the designated meeting point. Staff went back to look for the other vehicle and some people along the road told them they had seen the missing staff stopped at a checkpoint and taken off to a nearby police station.

On arriving at the station, Oxfam staff found the vehicle outside but police denied they had the missing staff, claiming the truck had been found abandoned. Because of the information they had, Oxfam knew the missing aid workers were there and refused to leave until they were freed.

After several hours, the police agreed to let them go on the understanding the matter would not be taken to their superiors. The workers had been badly beaten but, thanks to local help, they were released and taken to hospital.

However, in Afghanistan efforts to build trust with local communities were hampered after US military personnel were seen walking around, armed, and wearing civilian clothing. Further confusion was caused by aid being dropped from planes, alongside bombs. "This kind of behaviour blurs the boundaries between aid workers and the military. In the eyes of the local population, we all start looking the same,

says Tong.

Staff working in crisis situations will often find themselves in unfamiliar, distressing and possibly dangerous situations. Most agencies provide some level of training to try and prepare people for the problems they may encounter.

RedR is one of the providers of this. Among the organisation's most popular courses is a three-day security and communications training programme, where attendees experience the situations they could encounter in the field. The scenarios they face include being driven to an unknown location, being held at gunpoint, or simply encountering an unofficial checkpoint.

The RedR course also trains staff to use communications equipment such as satellite phones, vital for the security of aid workers. Alex Jacobs, director of Mango, an agency that provides accountancy field staff to aid organisations, says this type of training can be invaluable. "Just talking to someone with a gun is an experience you need to get used to,

he says.

At present many new recruits learn from experienced workers how to deal with the security problems that might arise in the field. Tong points out that although training is useful, it is hard to judge the precautions you should take until you have experienced a dangerous situation.

"I have been in charge of security and have worked with people who couldn't understand the necessity for certain strict procedures, then they take over a managing role and realise why security has to be so tight,

she says.

However, in spite of the security protocols and training, the unpredictable can happen. "Agencies must minimise risk, but no matter what you do sometimes things will happen,

says Hughes.

In case of any disasters, agencies take out medical and life insurance for employees. But they are finding that premiums have risen since 11 September. Gareth Owen, emergency adviser for Asia at Save the Children, says: "It has become very difficult to insure staff working in Afghanistan. It is expensive and we have to work hard to convince companies we are taking all the steps necessary to keep staff safe."

People in Aid, an organisation that promotes best practice in the management and support of international aid personnel, conducted research to compare the insurance provided by agencies for expatriate relief and development field staff. It looked at the insurance provided from 13 British and Irish NGOs and found that organisations generally provide cover for medical expenses, disability and loss of life. But the degree of cover varied greatly, with provision for medical expenses ranging from £8,000 to £1 million, for example.

In spite of the positive steps that many agencies are taking, there is concern that a lack of minimum training requirements and difficulties with recruiting experienced staff have led to low management standards in the aid sector.

Agencies sometimes find themselves with staff working in the field who are not adequately qualified or experienced enough for the job and discussions are now under way in the sector about introducing competency standards.

Mango's Jacobs is concerned that if management standards are not high enough then this could not only compromise staff safety but the lives of beneficiaries as well.

"Security issues are one of a series of management issues that have to be handled in the field,

Jacobs says. "The result of not doing this properly is too awful to consider when working with people in such desperate circumstances. It is vital to make sure that people have the competency to do the job."

SAVE THE CHILDREN'S SECURITY MEASURES

My role is to support field programme staff and regional directors who are usually based in the UK. I go into the field at the onset of a crisis to assess what should be done and the security issues.

Save the Children sends UK project officers, and sometimes media staff to crisis situations. All staff must understand exactly what the agency is doing there so this is communicated clearly to local people. Acceptance is the best form of security.

Make sure you know who the key players are and get in touch with them.

This sometimes means dealing with people who do not have legitimate power such as rebel forces which hold territory. But our role is to provide aid, not make political judgments.

We send staff on Red R training courses in the UK and in country. They go through a layered training and briefing system. They are trained and briefed before they leave and then when they arrive in country. They are then briefed in more detail when they arrive at the project.

From the start staff are made aware of what their role is and what the agency is there to do. They are also told to be very clear when talking to local people about their work.

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