NGO operational security in the field

Basile Pissalidis, Director of Security at InterAction, offered a workshop on NGO operational security in the field at SAIS.  Here is master’s student Andrew Kress’ summary of what was said:

The practice of operational security management entails the safeguarding of NGO operations in the field. This includes the protection of the organization’s people and assets, as well as proactive praxis of program planning and community engagement.

The need for operational security management is critical for NGOs operating in all environments, not only those affected by active conflict. Civilian deaths, sometimes including NGO staff, account for 90% of casualties in conflict zones today. But traditional security methods alone (e.g. armed transport, fortified buildings) are not sufficient to meet and mitigate threats in the field. To mitigate this risk, operational security managers employ a three-pronged strategy:  Acceptance, Protection and Deterrence.

Acceptance begins with direct dialogue and engagement with members of the community, particularly leaders of various ethnic and religious groups. This approach is characterized by proactive relationship-building in the field, and it is a key enabling factor in effective humanitarian operations. The strategy of acceptance poses a significant challenge, however, when engaging particular community leaders with known or suspected dubious track records can empower them within their communities, and be perceived by aid beneficiaries as a sign of approval or collusion. There are no universal criteria within the discipline for determining if, when, and how to engage such leaders. Decisions made by NGOs in such situations are highly contextual and multi-faceted.

The second aspect of operational security is that of protection. This entails the security of physical assets and infrastructure, as well as aid workers themselves. The disadvantage to pursuing a security strategy emphasizing protection is the potentially negative image projected by “bunkering in.” Physical separation from the community in which NGOs operate can create negative perceptions of the organization among its beneficiaries.

The third component of operational security management is deterrence. Deterrence is a traditional security approach which includes armed protection of assets and personnel. This model is very rarely pursued in the development arena due to the obviously negative effect such operations would have on public perception. Deterrence is useful, however, for specific operations that are carried out in short time-frames. Ultimately, NGOs should seek to strike a balance between acceptance and protection, with a stronger emphasis placed on acceptance.

One of the key obstacles to effective humanitarian operations is the failure to bridge the gap between an organization’s self-image and the image the organization bears in the community in which it operates. A common pitfall of program planners is to neglect the reality that some local actors resent the NGO’s presence and will go to extreme measures to ensure its failure. Turning a blind eye to these threats (by focusing inward on the justice of the organization’s cause) is often the primary reason why risks are overlooked. This organizational self-deception can lead to programming and communication that inadvertently reinforces a negative image held by the community.

Another major consideration in operational security management is that of delivering humanitarian aid in areas that require coordination with or avoidance of groups labeled as terrorist organizations by the United States government. Particularly when working with NGOs which receive federal funding, operational security managers must exercise extreme caution when advising organizations regarding interactions with such groups. Notably, the US government has issued waivers to some NGOs working in Afghanistan and Syria for specific and temporary operations which involve association with insurgent groups. However, such waivers are rarely granted and are limited in scope.

Operational security managers perform comprehensive conflict analyses prior to developing a security strategy. The first consideration in the conflict analysis is to assess the array of threats posed by operating in the field. Security experts look at more than 250 specific types of threats that could affect humanitarian programs including extortion, kidnapping, assault, demonstrations, disease, natural disasters, and the like. These threats are then assigned a degree of likelihood of occurrence. Finally, each threat is rated in terms of the impact it would have on the organization’s programs should it materialize. These determinations are translated to a risk planning matrix which is used to assess the aggregate risk associated with development operations in the region of focus, from which adequate security programming can be planned and executed. An example of the matrix is shown here:









Highly Likely





Suggestions for further training:

RedR – Registered Engineers in Disaster Relief (

CSD – Center for Safety & Development (

Suggestions for further reading:

Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace – or War by Mary B. Anderson

Operational Security Management in Violent Environments by Koenraad van Brabant


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