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Published: November 10, 2021

Two Steps for INGO Security Managers to Tackle Inequity in Global Safety and Security Infrastructures

By: Serena McGovern

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In 2020 and 2021, Safety and Security Managers responded to a quickly evolving global pandemic paired with a global conversation around race. Both events led to essential discussions about the roles that organisations – whether nonprofit, corporate, domestic or international – have played in either tacitly approving or, in some cases, codifying structural racism. In this blog, Serena McGovern (Allegiant Global Partners) outlines two opportunities for INGO security managers to improve equity in their organisations.

The global conversation in our sector about race is essential and overdue. Diversity in our global workforces contributes toward our ability to meet our missions, just as surely as healthy employees who are confident in risk mitigation measures do. Every one of the missions we serve – from environmental protection to the alleviation of poverty and the strengthening of health systems – requires expert input from multiple sectors and life backgrounds. It is simply impossible to benefit from the necessary level of expertise without building the infrastructure necessary to recruit and protect those employees.

But there is a growing realisation that the differentiation in support for this diverse workforce – specifically between those who live and work in the countries where they were born (national staff) and those travelling or on short-term assignment (international or expatriate staff) – echo and cement existing global inequities, for example, in access to healthcare. This calls for a new type of assessment for security managers: an internal one.

In the past, we’ve identified our Duty of Care for employees to be most expansive when we’ve assigned them to an unfamiliar, high-risk context. These staff members indeed require – and deserve – the highest possible commitment to their security, but this shouldn’t come at the cost of deprioritising the needs of our national employees.

Safety and Security Managers have always been well-acquainted with the shortcomings of this standard: our Plan A for supporting a staff member in the wake of a critical security or medical incident with the best care in the world is not always viable, based on the coverages in place. This evolving conversation opens space for us to question this status-quo and redefine our Duty of Care as applying equally to all staff, regardless of their prior access to certain resources or services. This is likely a welcome evolution for those of us who are in close contact with colleagues who are enduring some of the most difficult circumstances they’ll ever face.

In my first position outside of the nonprofit community, I work with international NGOs (INGOs) to define their Duty of Care in a manner that reflects their values. This often requires a bit of creativity, and it always involves an exploration of an emerging global market of vendors and products that support national and international/expatriate staff with equity in mind.

Not sure where to start? There are a few opportunities for concrete ways to enhance equity that may be directly within your control.


Making equity a priority when working with assistance providers

An Assistance Provider (AP) is a company that provides logistical support for staff members experiencing medical or security incidents. The service is traditionally focused on supporting staff travelling or living outside of their home country, excluding national staff. The following steps can improve equity in access for staff members:

  • Explicitly tell your Assistance Provider (AP) that equity is a concern for you, your leadership, and your staff. The AP market primarily exists to serve a corporate community that is not having the same conversation about racism and equity concerns. It creates its product offerings accordingly. APs will not understand – or adapt to – clients’ new priorities without being explicitly requested to.
  • Operationalise this priority by getting creative to expand your assistance services to include your entire employee population – not just travellers and expatriates – and emphasise this in your internal messaging. APs know that recent decreased international travel requires them to meet their customers’ needs in a new context: at home. We should take advantage of this rare moment of synergy between a global pandemic and a widespread cultural shift in the conversation around race.
  • Expand services to national staff. Some services would be valuable for all staff:
    • Access to telephonic medical advice via assistance centres in different languages;
    • Domestic travel assistance outside of capital cities, including transportation to tertiary care facilities where available; and
    • Hotel recommendations and health facility referrals.
  • Review your AP’s language about vulnerable populations and under-resourced geographies before disseminating their products. Currently, written content for under-resourced and high-risk geographies and targeted staff groups such as women and LGBTQ+ employees often retains outmoded language and graphics. A recent example from my own experience: a brochure covering security advice for women that includes icons of 1940s Dior New Look dress silhouettes and pearls next to a bullet point cautioning women to ‘use common sense’ – good advice for any situation, I suppose, but likely to be interpreted as condescending when aimed at professional women who, as a standard, always do use common sense. I’ve learned the hard way that the content previously developed for the corporate world often draws the ire of my colleagues in the INGO space and would benefit from review by someone who has experience working directly with diverse colleagues in sensitive situations – someone like you. INGOs aim to lead on inclusivity; security managers can demand that corporations catch up by directly and clearly stating required changes in language and messaging concerning the geographies in which their staff work and travel.


Considering all staff in medical evacuation procedures

Depending on how medical evacuations are funded at your international NGO, consider to:

  • Advocate with senior leaders for national staff insurance coverage to include emergency medical evacuation and regional care, in addition to access to high-quality local facilities. This can be achieved by reassessing priorities for self-insured plans or thoroughly researching the growing market of plan options available through insurance companies. Insurance companies are beginning to recognise the demand for and value of options that provide high-quality and affordable coverage across various employee classifications and a wide geographic area. The only way to nudge insurance companies forward is to participate in demanding these solutions.
  • Highlight how differences in access to medical evacuation dictate your options and the resulting response. Security managers have been limited by health insurance policies for a very long time; the first step toward medical evacuation coverage and access to high-quality care for all is to acknowledge that it does not currently exist for the large majority of national staff.


Embodying our principles internally

No employee at an international NGO is better positioned to contribute to building internal equity than a security manager. Each of us likely remembers a handful of cases where the best option for a response for an employee was out of the question due to limitations on insurances or funding. The Covid-19 pandemic has tragically provided many of us with recent examples. And, just as importantly, each of us is in a position to speak frankly and factually about that circumstance and its impact on our organisations’ ability to meet our mission and embody our values in our internal operations.

Let’s use the difficult circumstances of the last two years to drive progress.

About the Author

Serena McGovern has nearly ten years of experience in the Safety & Security field, the majority of which has been spent at international NGOs. She currently works with Allegiant Global Partners in a consulting role, focused on supporting operational staff at domestic nonprofits and INGOs to build and maintain S&S infrastructure. She holds a Masters of Public Administration and a Nonprofit Certificate from the School of Planning, Public Policy and Management at the University of Oregon and a Bachelor of Arts from the School of International Service at American University. After years spent in Swaziland and Malawi, Serena lives with her spouse and daughter in Bend, Oregon, and spends her free time in the Cascade mountains.


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