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Published: August 19, 2020

Changing perceptions: meet the faces of today’s NGO security

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On World Humanitarian Day, Lisa Reilly, Executive Director of GISF, takes a moment to pause and remember the work done, and sacrifices made, by humanitarians and aid workers globally. On this day, we recognise the contributions made by our members, colleagues and friends to improve staff safety and security across the sector.

‘2019 surpassed all previous recorded years in the number of major attacks committed against aid workers. A total of 483 aid workers were killed, kidnapped, or wounded in 277 separate incidents of violence.’

Aid Worker Security Report 2020, Humanitarian Outcomes.

The security professionals we work with at GISF come in all shapes and sizes, each with their own unique perspectives and experiences. These different viewpoints help us to ensure that security risk management is effective for all staff, whatever their personal profile. Here, on World Humanitarian Day, we share a few of their stories and why the work they do is important to them.


Image shows MatthiasIn many ways, Matthias is the stereotypical security manager, white and ex-military. But transitioning to the Humanitarian Sector was not always easy for him. Matthias worked as Head of Security Risk and Crisis Management in GIZ up until recently when he transitioned to Cluster Coordinator Reconstruction & Peace Building, completing his transition from the military to the humanitarian sector.

‘In 2008, I was posted as soldier for the German Armed Forces to Afghanistan, Kunduz; responsible for liaison with the Afghan people. One evening I was sitting in the dark in PRT [(Provincial Reconstruction Team)] Kunduz thinking about what I am doing, what we as a country are doing and how people suffer from war.

I made a life-changing decision. I severely wanted to see, to feel and to experience the other side. I asked myself how humanitarians, development workers and local people see and think about the army, humanitarians, development workers and international aid in general and why there is such a huge gap. Back in Germany, I decided to resign as a professional soldier and join Germany’s governmental development agency, GIZ. It stood to reason that I wanted to support my colleagues to do their job as safely as possible and I thought that I could make a valuable contribution to that mission. Again, back in Afghanistan, I also decided to study risk, crisis and disaster management from a civilian perspective, which helped me a lot to broaden my view on safety and security.

In the beginning, I faced a lot of challenges. My humanitarian colleagues still saw me as a military person, which was possibly due to my clothing, my behaviour, the way I was addressing risks and the way I was expecting people to cope with risks.

I was lucky to become part of the GISF (then EISF) network and to meet experienced humanitarian security risk management colleagues, who helped me a lot to change my style and thinking and to address security in a different way.  The network and the many helpful colleagues accompanied me for the next 10 years in many different countries and positions in which I was allowed to take on responsibility.

In my point of view, in humanitarian risk management, we should always recall and discuss the purpose of our existence. We are the wheel for safe and secure humanitarian and development project implementation. We exist to enable our project staff to do their job as safely and securely as possible. We exist to support access in the most dangerous and challenging environments. We exist so that we as organisations can build a reliable and professional foundation for humanitarian work in times of crisis.

The WHD is a day for me to pause and to remember the difficult but nevertheless so important work of aid workers and all the people who were injured, killed or kidnapped in the field to help the people who suffer most. Nowadays, there is no development without security and no security without development. The sector has a huge group of professionals working for the safety and security of our staff and partners and to enable our organisations to change the world for a better place.’


Image shows TaraWe are seeing a growing number of women joining the pool of security professionals in the sector. Tara joined GISF in 2019 as our Projects and Membership Officer for North America and our first US-based staff member. Tara does not have a ‘traditional’ security background but brings to the role and sector a very different life experience.

‘I am Haitian-American and grew up studying martial arts. This, without question, shaped me and my desire to enter the humanitarian and development space. For example, I recall a time when our karate school was used as a safe distribution space for refugees who fled instability in Haiti. I was a young girl at the time, but I witnessed the importance and solidarity of helping one another through a challenge.

After graduate school and a few different development, advocacy and other posts, I found myself at an international non-governmental organisation (INGO) in the US. My supervisor at the time was the head of global security. Both he and his successor were crucial in helping me recognise that I could have a role in humanitarian security risk management (SRM). They exposed me to a part of the humanitarian sector that, initially, I hadn’t realised aligned with many of the skills I was developing and desired to learn. Having been overseas and watched my partner and countless other friends and colleagues be deployed to various situations around the world, I increasingly knew first-hand how critical good humanitarian SRM was to keeping aid workers safe.

Looking back, I had the impression that someone needed to be ex-military or law enforcement in order to serve in a security capacity. Furthermore, at that time I had not met any female NGO security managers in the field or in my travels. Even my partner initially said that he would not feel comfortable if I deployed to hotspots around the world (even though he did regularly). For every one supportive voice, there were three saying that I couldn’t or shouldn’t deploy because I couldn’t handle the rigours of the conflict or environment, that I was too young, too inexperienced (despite not knowing my experience), didn’t have a military background, etc., etc.. Thankfully I am increasingly more resilient and resistant to these barriers and have a better understanding of my own realities.

One of my favourite things about working in humanitarian security risk management is the chance to use several cross-cutting skills. There is always a new challenge brewing in this field, and I love to problem-solve, but even more so, to prepare and prevent. I enjoy the opportunity to learn from so many incredible and experienced professionals and see the shape of how the sector is going to continue to evolve over time. Perhaps, most of all, I appreciate and value what it means to be part of helping to keep aid workers safe all around the world.’


Image shows KarokhI first met Karokh in Erbil in 2016, when he was working as the National Security Officer for an INGO. His knowledge and understanding of the context, the humanitarian situation and the security needs of both national and international colleagues gave me my best insight into the situation. Since then, he has completed his Master’s in Security Management and now works as Regional Safety, Security and Access Manager for an INGO.

‘As a starter, I would say it was not my plan to join the sector – although it turned out to be a privilege – but, circumstances change and thus I took a national position with an INGO doing SRM in early 2015. It was a good opportunity and indeed a new challenge to join the humanitarian sector after resigning from civil service.

At the very start, the transition was not easy nor straight forward; having to adapt to the humanitarian ethos and mentality, coming from a bureaucratic environment. It had and continues to have its challenges, but at this stage, I would call it a “rewarding journey,” during which I am growing and developing, learning more about the sector, witnessing how we do work, why we do it, and more importantly what impact it has on the lives of the most vulnerable. It indeed changed my mentality and the way that I view many things.

One of the early challenges that I faced was adapting my way of thinking to that of fellow aid workers; I thought aid work was all about food distribution and health – looking back at my thinking, it makes me laugh. So the first three months were a huge challenge – questioning my decision both personally and professionally – navigating the environment, learning how business is done, and more importantly how my role fits and adds value. I ended up reading quite a lot, but I would say the real deal were some of my colleagues who, in my different roles, took the time and, sort of, held my hand and guided me through, explaining the why as well as how it can be done better.

Now, reflecting on this journey so far, I am grateful to have worked with and learned from many great people in the sector. It remains a privilege and a humbling experience to see the smiles on many faces, and that’s somewhat because of the work we do as “humanitarians”. That’s why it is invaluable to recognise and appreciate the “World Humanitarian Day,” not just to acknowledge my fellow aid workers, who in many ways are risking their lives on a daily basis; but more importantly to use this day as an opportunity to highlight all the good work that aid agencies are doing in alleviating some of the sufferings sustained by the most vulnerable and marginalised people across the globe. Happy World Humanitarian Day.’


Developing Strategic Leadership for Humanitarian Security

In this blog Lisa Reilly, GISF Executive Director, shares her experience of attending the Strategic Leadership for Humanitarian Security: Business Management Skills for Humanitarian NGO Security professionals course at the IE Business School in Madrid.


Aid Worker Security on World Humanitarian Day: A Year in Review

On World Humanitarian Day the GISF commemorates the national and international aid workers who lost their lives this past year and remember the colleagues who continue carrying out humanitarian work in challenging contexts despite the risks they face.


Adopting an inclusive approach to aid worker security risk management in the COVID-19 era

In 2018, GISF (then EISF) published a research paper entitled ‘Managing the Security of Aid Workers with Diverse Profiles’. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has made an unprecedented impact on the way we work, affecting partnerships, programmes and headquarters offices. Taking the key lessons of the paper, this blog piece explores some of the inclusive considerations that security risk managers might make at this time.

Global 2020