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Published: April 12, 2021

GISF’s 2021 March Forum – a look back

By: Camila Shoeibi

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On the 18th and 19th of March 2021, GISF hosted its biannual forum welcoming over 100 participants from around the world. Together with speakers from across the humanitarian sector, GISF members discussed cutting-edge issues impacting security risk management (SRM) in the humanitarian sector, from the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia to the impact of rising extremism on the aid sector. In this blog, GISF’s new North America Projects Assistant Camila Shoeibi shares how she experienced her first GISF forum.

I joined the GISF March forum during my first week working for GISF. It opened my eyes to the many security risks that aid workers face. Before working in humanitarian security risk management (SRM), I knew many individuals who volunteered in high-risk areas around the world. I shared their desire to deliver aid to conflict-affected communities. But the extent of risks involved in these operations, such as abduction, terrorism, and gender-based violence, shouldn’t be taken lightly. GISF’s forums provides security experts with a safe place to share, analyse, and reflect on these challenges and improve how we protect aid workers.

The sessions

 The March forum took place over two days with a variety of sessions, including discussions of lessons learnt from specific incident management, conversations on incident reporting and data collection, as well as interactive sessions on the collaboration of advocacy and security. I enjoyed these events’ diversity, as they involved presentations from different experts coming from NGOs, think tanks, governments, and private companies. During the sessions, many small group discussions and break out rooms allowed for more personal exchanges. As someone who is new to SRM, I particularly found the Ethiopia context session and the panel discussion on rising extremism’s impact on the aid sector interesting. They highlighted the many ways in which SRM professionals have to think about the contexts in which humanitarians operate.

Context session: Ethiopia

 The Ethiopia context session explored the most recent developments in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and their associated security risks, such as shelling, looting, crossfires, targeted attacks on medical centres, and more. Speakers from humanitarian NGOs and human rights organisations voiced their concerns about the grave human rights violations in the region, evident in the rapidly increasing incidents and the growing number of adults and children killed. It was eye-opening to hear about the challenges of reporting on this violence and accessing people in need of assistance from both an SRM and a human rights perspective.

Journalists and human rights reporters have to deal with the government’s increased control over communication channels, which involves the shutdown of networks and media censorship. The lack of access to the internet and restricted communication channels impacts civilians and aid workers in the Tigray region. Within a few months, the Ethiopian context radically changed, and aid workers who were used to working in a ‘development context’ suddenly found themselves operating in a violent crisis. Accessing regular security updates on the situation is all the more critical as civilians and aid workers have to learn how to navigate this volatile environment.

While my previous research focused on press freedom in Eurasia, it was interesting to see how similar techniques to control information-sharing are now being used in Ethiopia. This revealed the importance of fighting against misinformation and the control of the press. Both prevent the adequate reporting of human rights violations and constitute significant challenges to humanitarian operations. This also showed me the critical role that GISF plays as a forum where NGOs can exchange information and security updates on restrictive contexts.

The impact of rising extremism on the aid sector  

This session investigated the rise of jihadist groups and the security challenges they pose to aid workers. Different security and terrorism experts discussed why terrorist groups target the humanitarian sector and the narratives they create around NGOs as targets.

The panel demonstrated that since 2020, there has been a rise of terrorist incitement against aid workers, with ISIS declaring in August that humanitarians are ‘legitimate targets’. In its magazine, the group frames international NGOs as an extension of western power, as organisations filled with spies and corruption, seeking to convert Muslims and promote a loosening of morals. This narrative serves to justify ISIS’ attacks on aid workers and reassert its control over populations by spreading fear that they too will be targeted if they ‘collaborate’ with western NGOs. But not all jihadist groups adopt this approach. Depending on their leadership and the importance they grant to gaining local support, other groups are open to collaborate with aid workers.

The rise of extremism and the targeting of aid workers raises security challenges for humanitarian operations, threatening their safety and access to crisis-affected populations.

 My takeaways

 As the forum ended, so did my first week at GISF. Attending the forum introduced me to the different risks that aid workers can face around the world and the vital role that organisations like GISF play in tackling them. Hostile narratives against aid workers are likely to continue to be used by terrorists when they deem them strategically useful. Also, the restriction of press and media freedom has been an issue in many regions for decades and has consequences for both humanitarians and human rights organisations.

GISF will continue to create a space for NGOs to discuss these issues and encourage stakeholders in the humanitarian sector to collaborate on addressing them. As the new GISF recruit in North America, it was a pleasure to be a part of this forum.

The GISF secretariat thanks all of the participants and speakers who attended this event and look forward to our next forum in North America in June.

About the Author 

Camila Shoeibi joined GISF in March 2021. She is passionate about research and aid for developing countries. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and Minor in Digital Studies from the University of Mary Washington.

During her undergraduate education, Camila interned on Capitol Hill for the House Majority Leader’s Office and for a California congressman where she worked with both the legislative and media teams. She also served as Public Relations Chair for the non-profit Habitat for Humanity at her university to promote community service work to students. Most recently, Camila worked as an Instructional Assistant aiding with virtual learning.


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