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Published: March 30, 2021

Risk Analysis in Humanitarian Assistance – what to expect?

By: Cristopher López

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Cristopher López recently started his career in risk analysis (RA) in humanitarian assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In this blog, he reflects on some of the overlapping themes between RA and security risk management (SRM) and shares his insights on how to prepare for joining an international risk analysis team.

As a programme assistant in the RA Division at USAID, I support the programmatic and technical analysis of risks to provide early warning, effective mitigation and appropriate responses to natural disasters. Although my work differs from SRM, there are inherent overlaps that allow both fields to coordinate efforts around risks.

RA supports decision-making by understanding human vulnerabilities to crises and providing technical support to humanitarian actors. Thus, both RA and SRM are committed to achieving greater impact for disaster-affected populations. The difference between them lies in their focus. SRM aims to protect aid workers to enable access to people in need while RA focuses on vulnerable populations themselves. Yet, one can’t exist without the other. Keeping in mind these overlapping goals helps to better understand the knowledge and skills useful to both SRM and RA roles.

Understanding the multiplicity and intersectionality of risks

The first thing I learned working on RA is that one disaster generates multiple risks. However, how these risks are assessed depends on the risk analyst’s perspective. A good analyst must have a comprehensive overview of the situation, consider different perspectives and talk to different actors in the field and at HQ. For instance, during Haiti’s 2016 Hurricane Matthew, it was equally important to analyse the risks stemming directly from the hurricane, such as storm surges and violent winds, and to look at correlated events and long-term consequences like floods, mudslides, and debris. Having a comprehensive picture of risks is critical for risk analysts and security risk managers to understand the possible risks for affected populations and humanitarians in the short and long-term.

While I expected most of my colleagues to have a background in social sciences or international relations, I quickly realised how unaware I was of humanitarian assistance and RA’s intersectionality. At USAID, I am surrounded by different experts, from engineers and architects to health advisors. These technical specialists constantly coordinate with each other when analysing the damages and vulnerabilities a disaster poses. For example, sheltering displaced people mobilises different expertises, one related to evaluating immediate risks, such as flooding, and another related to assessing long-standing risk, such as gender-based violence. Similarly to the RA field, SRM professionals often come from diverse technical backgrounds and coordinate with a range of experts to understand the security risks humanitarians are exposed to.

What skills and experiences can help to become a risk analyst?

Two essential skills helped me as a programme assistant at USAID.

The first one is risk communication and language. Communicating risk to the affected population and aid workers is critical for their safety and security and programme implementation. Clear information has to be rapidly delivered to affected people on issues related to their safety, aid workers on security measures, and the media on intervention updates. As a programme assistant, I need to ensure that my message is clearly presented to all stakeholders – forgetting one individual could delay delivery in services or aid. Similarly, languages help when working with diverse partners and local aid workers in other regions. Speaking Spanish, French, Portuguese, and German has allowed me to understand partners’ intervention proposals, work plans, evaluation reports, and build rapport with others.  Although USAID’s working language is English, waiting for documents to get translated can waste precious time in situations where decisions need to be made rapidly.

The second skill relates to field experience. My understanding of field realities also helped me when analysing risks. My fieldwork experience showed me the importance of on-site visits to inform headquarters and understand the big picture of an organisation’s work. By being on the ground, I saw where the budget was allocated, what target areas were prioritised, and who delivered the assistance. However, as much as I advise young professionals to get fieldwork experience, it is vital to complete the appropriate trainings before and carefully choose organisations that have fieldwork-based programmes for ‘newbies’.

Applying for SRM and RA roles

My advice to young graduates and professionals interested in RA and SRM roles is to strengthen their communication and language skills and deepen their understanding of both field realities and the intersectionality of risks. Developing this knowledge before applying to positions will not only increase your chances of being hired but will also help you in your work on protecting vulnerable populations and aid workers.


About the Author

Cristopher López is a recent graduate student pursuing a career in risk analysis in humanitarian assistance. He graduated from a dual master’s degree programme in ‘Conflict Security & Development’ at King’s College London and in ‘Human Rights & Humanitarian Action’ at Sciences Po Paris. As a US-American and Ecuadorian citizen, Cristopher has broad experiences working with NGOs, CSOs and local public entities across the Americas and other regions. Cristopher firmly believes that effective risk management is about proactivity; rather than responding to risk, it is crucial to ‘diagnose’ it in advance.


Contact details: cristophermarcelolopez@gmail.com





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