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Round table on insecurity and humanitarian aid in Haiti

On 12 December 2013, Groupe URD’s Haiti Observatory organised a round table to present the report by Arnaud Dandoy entitled, “Security in Haiti: an impossible dialogue?”. A dozen representatives of different humanitarian organizations (Médecins sans Frontière, Oxfam Québec, CRS, ACTED, etc.) were present for a very frank discussion of the important and sensitive question of security for humanitarian organisations.

Security in Haiti is a genuine societal problem which goes beyond individual or organisational preoccupations and divisions between the development and humanitarian sectors. Discussions about humanitarian security are often limited to technical directives about risk management. But it is dangerous to apply technical solutions to problems which are not technical. The contexts in which humanitarian organizations work are extremely varied, fragile and nuanced. The ambiguity of humanitarian practices, which are often disorganized, subjective and emotionally charged, are not easily compatible with standards, protocols or “good” practices. Broader reflection is necessary about the political, economic and social issues involved in the security policies of humanitarian organizations.

The approach used in this report aimed to be less technocratic and more sociological. It may have appeared inappropriate and even prejudicial for heads of security who are responsible for protecting staff in the field. But, what happens “in the field” is beyond personal influence and should be understood in a broader historical and cultural context. We will only be able to have a genuine debate about humanitarian organisations’ security policies if we take a step back from current ways of thinking about risks (physical, reputational and financial).

The bureaucratisation, professionalisation and standardisation of risk management needs to be seen as part of the rationalization process which the humanitarian sector has undergone over the last two decades. Sophisticated technology is put in place to evaluate risk (risk assessment), which then needs to be “managed” (risk management) by disciplining humanitarian staff so that they are able to make rational and prudent choices. The rational and technical world of humanitarian security affects the very essence of humanitarianism, which is to be at the disposition of others. The humanitarian sector has become obsessed with notions of risk, which reflects less an objective reality than a fearful state of mind.

Public space is no longer a place where there is interaction and exchange, but a place which is “at risk”. Disciplinary authorities interfere in the smallest details of humanitarians’ professional and private lives. Even amorous relationships are controlled – in their own interest. Rational humanitarianism has replaced relational humanitarianism – which has become more and more rigid and impersonal – to the benefit of a procedural and managerial approach which imposes social distance. One of the fundamental principles of humanitarian action is to “do no harm”. This means avoiding incoherence and policies which run counter to humanitarian action and development. This principle should necessarily apply to the security policies of humanitarian organizations.

In the end, the real danger is to replace all political, economic and social discussion with technical considerations about risk management. There is a contradiction between talk of building public institutions, reducing inequalities and increasing social cohesion on the one hand and the security policies of humanitarian organizations on the other. The fortification of humanitarian agencies’ offices and the restrictive measures in terms of displacement and mobility reinforce social and spatial segregation. Segregation-based approaches mean that staff are increasingly distant from the local population. The gap becomes increasingly wide between those who are able to afford (private) security and the majority of the population who do not have these privileges. Investment in public security is one of the most viable solutions for increasing security. Despite national and international action, the Haitian state is still not able to provide its population with security. Security is still provided by the private sector. Humanitarian organizations themselves continue to see their own security as a private rather than public good. There is therefore an artificial separation between initiatives for reinforcing public security in Haiti on the one hand, and the daily security practices of humanitarian organizations on the other. Rather than converging or being coherent, these continue to evolve independently.

One of the dangers of this is that it increases resentment and hostility against humanitarian organizations. From this angle, the report should not be taken as a personal attack, or one more example of “humanitarian bashing”, but rather as a way of understanding the causes better and improving the security of humanitarians. The objective is the same, but there are different ways of achieving it. The issue of security requires a different approach, an adaptive approach, which does not rely solely on ready-made answers or pre-defined standards. The required competencies need to be more flexible and more intuitive than those required by the managerial or procedural approach which dominates the management of humanitarian security. This approach is experimental and diversified. The goal is not to have organizations copying each other, but rather to encourage diversity of practices. It should be realistic and should not underestimate the very real dangers which exist for humanitarians. However, the adaptive approach is critically important. It should not allow itself to be enclosed in ways of thinking (about risk, for example) which marginalize other ways of seeing humanitarian security. It is reflexive. It learns from past mistakes and the need to avoid repeating them. Finally, the adaptive approach is collective. It breaks with the authority of those who impose rules. Instead, it mobilizes all actors to respond more effectively to the problem of insecurity.

Arnaud Dandoy