Duty of Collaboration: The Changing Personality of NGO Security

By Matthew Thacker, PSI

Ask any NGO program manager in the field what a “security person” looks like, and they will probably describe someone who resembles an intense military commander from movies about World War 2 or Vietnam — gruff, hard to like, intense, but committed and undoubtedly will save the day. Some organizations want, or even need, this type of person in their high-risk country offices or headquarters to whip the organization’s security into shape the way only a former drill sergeant could. And there are a few NGO security managers and directors who do fit this description. But if you go to NGO security meetings, trainings, or presentations, this type of person is not likely who you’ll find.

When I visited the office of a previous employer in Kenya a few years ago, the senior staff were slightly confused. One of them later told me, “We were expecting someone older…and with more pockets,” explaining that in their minds, I would be wearing cargo pants and a tactical vest spilling with radios, satellite phones, spare batteries, and energy drinks. During my time in Afghanistan with yet another organization, the Country Director asked why I carried a “man bag” around with me everywhere I went. I explained to him that it was actually the trauma first aid kit the former security manager had, but I didn’t want to carry a camouflage military backpack everywhere.

And I’m not alone. There has been an overall evolution of NGO security coordinators, managers, and directors. The 21st century security manager is likely to be academic, with advanced degrees and/or strong research and analytical backgrounds. We are more likely than our previous counterparts to speak foreign languages. We have a deep understanding and appreciation of NGO programs — often having worked as administrative and operations managers for program teams before moving to safety and security. More women are becoming highly successful and respected NGO security managers, as are gays, lesbians and people of color. And, perhaps most importantly, we are highly tech-savvy and collaborative.

To succeed, a security manager must have strong formal and informal information networks. Lives are saved or lost because of access to rumors, early warnings, and missives like, “You didn’t hear it from me, but…” Long-serving security managers have carefully cultivated and even guarded their networks across a wide number of countries as they rely on their contacts to get them out of jams more times than they can count.

The “new class” of security manager still knows the importance of networking and contacts, but also approaches security as much more of a community effort. Millennial managers are very open to asking for, and sharing, contacts and information. Though perhaps greener, most of my fellow NGO security managers are able to get staff out of just as many difficult situations as any police or military commander in Juba or Abuja. And I know why.

One Skype chat group for NGO security managers that I belong to has 71 participants. The majority of the participants in this group have less than 10 years of experience in the NGO security sector. Almost daily, discussions come through the chat covering such recent topics as: planned protests in Mozambique; comparing safe hotel options in Ouagadougou; alerting one another of attacks in Bamako, Brussels, and Jakarta; and asking for policy language or guidelines to support LGBT travelers and international staff in the field. These discussions are lively and include a wide range of opinions and approaches, and they address the most important question in each case: “What are other NGOs doing?”

Asking this question allows for collaboration in creating new policies. It can also provide for cost-share or coordination of evacuations and information. But most of all, it addresses an important point to organizational Duty of Care — what reasonable actions did similar NGOs take to prevent or mitigate the risk? Finding out immediately that eight other NGOs with similar programs and profiles have already decided to close their offices due to potential demonstrations gives weight to internal discussions with senior management teams.

There are multitude of apps being used in the field. Some use Facebook Messenger to ask about hotel quality with former program colleagues. Snapchat can be used to send pictures to trusted security contacts showing dangerous behaviors, or to offer visuals for what bars and restaurants look like in a given city. Telegram is good for sending sensitive rumors overheard at a bar or cafe.  WhatsApp works for large group chats when Skype service is not available, or for a selected list of people who have an interest in a given country or topic.

Oftentimes, NGO security is a bell curve of restricted behavior — some organizations have zero risk tolerance, and others have extreme. Most NGOs sit in the middle. Without the ability to quickly benchmark a course of action, it is nearly impossible to know where that middle lies. Prior to digital communication that now connects NGO security managers, these discussions were held on weekly or monthly conference calls, in cafes, and in quiet corners of bars. These in-person meetings do still happen, but they’ve become places to discuss after-action reviews and debriefs; the latest bits of information gleaned from country visits; and strategies to address complicated problems. The lightning-fast ability to communicate electronically now provides the primary means of sharing critical, time-sensitive information.

Generally, all security managers would probably agree that we are less concerned with who works for whom and want to protect the lives and well-being of all NGO staff. And asking “What projects does your organization do in country X?” instead of, “Who do you work for?” creates that safe space to collaborate more broadly. Naturally some organizations collaborate better than others, but a good NGO security manager is undoubtedly patched into the NGO security chain of information; some simply have more links than others.

The 21st century security manager also approaches collaboration as an opportunity to find economies of scale and the ability to draw upon a comparative advantage of specializations. With safety and security encompassing health, safety, physical security, vehicle security, capacity building, local and regional knowledge, it requires knowledge, skills, and abilities well beyond anyone to have perfected in every category. By collaborating readily, millennial managers are able to combine one person’s French fluency, with another’s medical knowledge, and another’s disaster management experience, resulting in basic best practices to use in country offices preventing Ebola for staff in Guinea or working on cholera issues in Haiti. Furthermore, the seasoned security managers who have adapted and joined the collaboration space continue to provide their invaluable experience gained through decades of field experience. Collaboration, training, and background knowledge are valuable, but cannot be seen as a direct substitute for wisdom gleaned from hands-on security management of complex situations.

Only the most well-resourced security teams can handle every question and every situation in-house without speaking to colleagues in the community. Even as many NGO leaders have begun to grow and expand security teams and their budgets, we will need to share information and get support from others in the security world as the challenges of keeping people safe continue to evolve.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of PSI

Matthew Thacker is the Senior Manager for Global Security at Population Services International. He can be reached at mthacker at psi.org.