Supporting Security for HumanitarianAction. A review of critical issues for the humanitarian community

Stoddard A. and Harmer, A.
Publication language
Date published
01 Mar 2010
Research, reports and studies
The impact of insecurity on humanitarian operations, marked by rising casualty rates of aid workers 
in the highest risk environments, has increasingly drawn the attention of international policy makers. 
As a result, some donor governments have started to examine practical questions of how they and 
their partners can work collectively to support good practice and enhance operational security for 
humanitarian action. The Montreux Humanitarian Retreat section on the theme of ‘Safety and 
Security in Humanitarian Action’ represents a first step and potentially significant opportunity in this 
regard. This review was designed to support and inform that discussion, based on terms of 
reference elaborated by the Montreux conveners’ group.
The review’s terms of reference called for an examination of the availability, adequacy, and 
distribution of funding for security in humanitarian settings, and of support for collective security 
management platforms and individual agency security management. To do so, the authors 
synthesized findings from the most recent literature and thinking in the sector; drawing on their over 
five years of focused research and consultations in the field of humanitarian operational security. 
That research has comprised over 600 interviews and repeated consultations with humanitarian 
professionals and security experts in the UN, Red Cross movement, and NGO community, as well 
as donor governments and the private sector. The synthesis was augmented by 17 additional key 
informant interviews conducted specifically for this review, and a funding flow analysis using current 
financial data from OCHA’s Financial Tracking Service and selected donor and agency 
budgets/spending statements. 
The review begins with brief background information on statistical trends in aid worker insecurity, 
highlighting that the majority of attacks on aid operations are occurring in a small number of active 
conflict settings, and that this violence has become increasingly politically oriented. This is followed 
by a summary of findings on how aid agencies are responding to the challenges of working in these 
extreme environments, and the resulting constraints on humanitarian access. The review then 
presents an analysis of funding for security and its operational implications for aid programming in 
insecure areas. Finally, the review examines the current state of interagency security coordination at 
the field and headquarters levels. Principal conclusions of this review are that:
  • The operational responses of aid agencies to insecurity entail difficult tradeoffs, and all of them -short of pulling out completely - require significantly greater security expenditure to effectively manage and mitigate the risks. This includes ‘soft’ security approaches such as pursuing active acceptance strategies. 
  • Context drives security costs, and there is little consistency in security budgeting policies and practices from one field office to another. 
  • The majority of security funding is embedded in field office and programme-specific budgets (making it near impossible to get to an accurate global estimate of what is actually spent). The CAP mechanism has been an ineffective channel for mobilising security resources. The difficulties with the CAP, and the preference of agencies to ‘hide’ security costs within programme budgets, are due in part to host government sensitivities on the issue.
  • Dependence on project-based security funding has implications for settings where there is no international NGO ground presence (e.g. Somalia), since the UN-supported humanitarian platforms have security requirements that are both costly (compared to NGOs) and more reliant on common services and infrastructural requirements requested through the CAP. The low coverage of the CAP security requests will therefore severely hamper aid operations in such a case.
  • Many factors could help fill current gaps in interagency security coordination and individual agency security management, chief among them better dialogue with donor governments that are actively engaged with the issue, and more coordination among the donors themselves.