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Published: May 17, 2022

The Big Picture: geopolitical trends driving humanitarian security challenges (Part 2)

By: Hugo Slim

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Humanitarian space is constantly being negotiated, and today's security managers are having to make ethical considerations as they work to keep aid workers safe. In part two of this blog series, based on Hugo Slim's keynote speech at the 2021 HNPW session: 'SRM in the Changing Global and Humanitarian Context', Slim explores the evolution of the humanitarian footprint, and the ethics of security risk management.

The evolution of the humanitarian footprint 

Thinking a little now about your humanitarian space, such as it is at the moment and the footprint you have around the world. Where are you? Where can you go? Where can you safely go? Here, I want to talk about the international system, your footprint, and the dreaded Nexus. The international humanitarian system is international, but is not a global system. It’s a Western system, really. You’re not part of a truly global system, you’re not in China, you’re not in Russia, you’re not in India, you’re not going to be in the USA. And a lot of you will not be in Southeast Asia for much longer, I imagine.   

So you are, in a sense, the Western humanitarian system, increasingly. You are financed and designed by the Western group, or WEOG as it’s called at the UN. Your footprint is and will be increasingly confined to the West’s sphere of influence. A big question, in terms of your footprint, will be what China decides. How much will China decide to finance your system, your agencies, the UN? And how much will it decide to replace it along the Belt and Road Initiative, with an internationalising, Chinese Red Cross or Chinese civil defence system? What China decides will dictate where you can go in the world, where you’re accepted and respected and where you’re not.    

The other thing that will decide where you go, is how much you effectively engage and support locally-led humanitarian action in the next few years. If you really want to enable humanitarian support in different parts of the world, you’re going to need to localise and invest in local organisations much more, because they have a chance of staying there. They have to self-determine the future of humanitarian action in their countries. That’s where you should be building. And of course, if you’re supporting locally-led humanitarian action that has different forms of security management and security support for you as professionals.   

The next big thing to say about your footprint and your presence is that it’s not just physical. Today, the physical and digital space have joined. Your digital space is much bigger now, in a sense, than your physical space, and it is a huge new security zone for you. The security challenge in the digital space is not just around disinformation, misinformation and espionage into your organisations, but also around protecting yourselves, because your tech is part of your body now and people know where you are because of your tech. It’s the same with people you’re trying to protect; your staff, civilians. You are now fused in a digital and physical footprint. That’s a huge challenge going forward. It’s a great opportunity too.   

You’re also being asked to work more and more with people beyond your profession, with development agencies or international finance institutions. They have a very different experience of risk, and a different experience of security. They tended to leave, usually, if there’s a security risk, and come back later, but they’re not going to do that anymore. You’re often going to be fused with partners, and a response system which has a very different security culture to you, doesn’t necessarily relate to you, is more risk averse than you and doesn’t have the professionals that you have. So you’re going to have to find a relationship in the Nexus with your development colleagues as well. That’s been shown quite clearly in the Tigray operation, where most agencies there were development, and they couldn’t easily kick start. 

The ethics of humanitarian security risk management  

Finally, three bits of ethics. The first thing is, it’s ethically proper that you should prioritise your people. I truly believe in circles of ethical obligation, expanding circles, and our inner circle of ethical obligation. The people most important for us to protect are our own people. The principle of protecting and prioritising your staff security is an ethically sound one. Our first duties are to those who are closest to us.    

However, you also have a security duty and obligation to enable people, so you should not be trying to hold them back. You need, as security people, to let them go and let them work. For a person to risk their life is at one level, their personal choice. For many national staff, they work in a war in Nigeria, or Yemen or Myanmar and it’s their choice about how they want to risk their life for their country’s crisis. That personal choice is important. They should be allowed to make it, but it must be grounded in consent, not coercion. You always need to be getting consent off people if they’re going to risk their lives. Outsourcing risk is, therefore, an issue. The way we work in localisation, remotely, you’re asking people to take risks, and you won’t be taking the same risks. But it’s up to them to take it and they may well want to, and you shouldn’t prevent them and say it’s too dangerous for them. You shouldn’t infantilise them and say ‘no, we shouldn’t let them take risks, we’re being irresponsible’. They are people with political, humanitarian, often religious commitments to their crises, and it’s their decision if they take that risk. But you have an equal duty of care to national and international staff. You have an equal duty to care for them all, mitigate their risks, enable them and protect as much as you can.   

The final thing I want to say about ethics is that in the future, because of this crisis of authoritarianism and democracy, you may end up supporting people who are organising life-saving against authoritarian governments, under attack from authoritarian governments, as civilian movements like in Myanmar. Sometimes, resistance is an ethical and political duty for us against great wrongs. But being a resistance humanitarian carries extreme risks. It means working covertly, clandestinely, illegally, often, not transparently. If you are going to be supporting medical movements, food security movements, who are trying to save lives clandestinely, it will require a whole new set of security skills. You will need to be ready to work out what it means to support humanitarian resistance movements, who are life-saving against repressive governments. I hope that’s helped give a big picture on geopolitics, humanitarian footprint, and a bit of ethics.    

This year, between 2nd and 20th May, GISF will again lead on the Area of Common Concern ‘Integrating Security Risk Management Across Humanitarian Action’ at HNPW, co-hosting several virtual and face-to-face sessions in partnership with different actors such as the UN, ICRC, CBM, Raleigh International, as well as independent consultants. To join our sessions and discuss how to keep aid workers safe and improve communication and coordination in light of these current challenges, visit our event page here!  


Image Credit: ChildFund 


The Big Picture: geopolitical trends driving humanitarian security challenges (Part 1)

The risk of big warfare, the return to a multipolar world and rising authoritarianism can pose challenges for humanitarian operations. In this blog, based on Hugo Slim’s keynote speech at the 2021 HNPW session: ‘SRM in the Changing Global and Humanitarian Context’, he explores the geopolitical trends driving the humanitarian security challenges of today and tomorrow.

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