Steve Dennis Reflects on Changes in Duty of Care in the NGO Sector

Published On: October 27, 2023Categories: Crisis Management, Health & Safety, NGO & Humanitarian

Steve Dennis was a career humanitarian aid worker, employed by various NGOs and UN agencies, including the World Food Programme, Médecins Sans Frontières and United Nations Department of Safety and Security. On 29 June 2012, while he worked for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Steve Dennis was injured and kidnapped in an attack during a VIP visit to a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Armed men targeted the convoy in which Steve was travelling, resulting in the death of one staff member, a gunshot wound to Steve’s leg, and injuries to three other colleagues. He was eventually rescued four days later by Kenyan security forces after a violent gunfight.

I used to have a promising career in the field. I also used to be able to walk through life without being [traumatically] triggered by things. And I am still fortunate; someone else lost their life in my incident.” – Steve Dennis

Following the incident, Steve began to question the NRC’s risk management procedures and sought an independent review. However, senior management informed him that the incident was simply a consequence of working in a dangerous location and nothing more could have been done. During this period, Steve was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and received minimal, if any, meaningful support from his employer. 

In 2015, Steve won a precedent-setting legal victory in the Norwegian courts. Authorities determined that the risks were foreseeable, and the NRC was found to be grossly negligent in terms of understanding and managing these risks by key decision-makers. The case also exposed a disturbingly high level of disregard for staff safety within the organisation. Moreover, the process emphasised the urgent need for aftercare for individuals injured in the line of duty. 

A comprehensive breakdown of the incident and the subsequent court case can be found in Duty of Care: A review of the Dennis v Norwegian Refugee Council ruling and its implications.

Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, home to more than 200,000 refugees and asylum seekers as at the end of July 2020 (UNHRC).

Colin Pereira, Co-founder of RiskPal, caught up with Steve to explore how his case changed the industry. The interview provides valuable insights into organisational preparedness, the necessity of demonstrating justifiable decision-making and the importance of post-incident support for individuals. 

Colin Pereira: It’s 11 years after your incident, how are you coping?

Steve Dennis: I would say things are better. It was a highly traumatic incident that completely changed my field career. I was shot, so I still have physical soreness in my leg. However, in the years after, I suffered post-traumatic stress. Not being supported [by the organisation] and having huge uncertainties regarding my future, led to a depression that was quite hard [to cope with]. But today, I am better. The court case was validating and answered a lot of my questions on the organisation’s security management. There was a disregard for staff safety, as well as lack of support afterwards.

Colin Pereira: In terms of failings of duty of care during your incident, what were the main ones?

Steve Dennis: I think if you look through the lens of putting in reasonable measures to help manage foreseeable risk, then they failed to do that on every level. The key decision-makers did not have the qualifications, or the competency, to understand and interpret the risk. And lots of good practice was simply ignored.

For example, the organisation had a very good hostile environment training package – which I learned about after – but at the time of my incident, nobody in the field had done it. The security advisors had [made] some very decent recommendations for the VIP visit in the risk assessment – they were just not implemented or were directly contravened.

Due to the level of failure, [the organisation] was actually found to be grossly negligent.

Colin Pereira: Do you feel your case benefitted the NRC longer term?

Steve Dennis: Many senior managers and staff had told me after the event that there was a big shock that such an incident had occurred. But that quickly went away and there was an attempt to go back to business as normal. Management’s attitude was that the whole incident could not have been avoided as it was a “residual risk of the risky environment.” When I asked a manager if he had read the incident report he said: “We’re not looking backwards, that’s the past. That’s for you guys to have closure. That’s not for us.”

In the three years following my incident, I was alarmed at the high number of new security incidents involving the organisation’s personnel. And each time there was the same response – the incident was a result of residual risk [and that] there was nothing that could have been done to prevent it.

At the end of the case, they admitted to negligence. The lawsuit has been a key motivator for change [in the organisation].

Colin Pereira: The case has been lauded as a watershed moment in the sector – how do you judge its impact?

Steve Dennis: The only insight I think I can bring is that every month I am told by someone that they’ve been in an introductory security session at their NGO during which they have been briefed about my case and the importance of duty of care.

I think the case is a deterrent factor to bad decision-making on the part of managers. When somebody’s house burns down, you start looking at your extinguishers and fire alarms. Are they up to date? Are they vulnerable to the same risk? One of the things I was fighting for was an external review process of my incident. Some organisations have taken this to heart and established an ombudsman role and a whole string of grievance management [procedures], including escalation mechanisms, internal court systems and staff representatives.

Colin Pereira: So more risk analysis, planning, less shooting from the hip and better post-incident investigation?

Steve Dennis: That is a good way of putting it. However, a lot of organisations did miss the memo completely and are still out there shooting from the hip. Maybe they think they are small enough in terms of deployments to avoid anything bad happening. But it is like having a seatbelt in a car. Most of your life, you do not benefit from the seatbelt. But just once in a while, you really do.

Not having a seat belt, well, for me, that is reckless behaviour. Lives get ruined that way. I used to have a promising career in the field. I also used to be able to walk through life without being [traumatically] triggered by things. And I am still fortunate; someone else lost their life in my incident.

Colin Pereira: How does this experience relate to what you are doing now right?

Steve Dennis: Since my case got a lot of publicity, a lot of people in the NGO space who have been involved in traumatic incidents, detention or physical injury reach out [to me]. Sometimes their organisations ask me to get involved. These individuals may be experiencing, what I would call, the cloud or the fog of injury and trauma and try to figure out what their next steps are. I work with people as a coach, mentor or project manager to [help them] navigate the new landscape they are facing.

Often, they don’t know what they need and nor do their managers.

In some cases, there’s a complicated landscape of insurance requirements. For example, in some circumstances you need to declare your injuries within certain timelines and have them documented in proper ways. In my case, I was seeing a psychologist. But for insurance claims, I needed a letter from a psychiatrist. This was not explained [to me] and really slowed down the whole claims process which was frustrating. Not what you need when you are suffering from trauma.

So, it is common for people to be lost. If their organisation is dismissive or their contract is restrictive (i.e. they are classed as a volunteer), it becomes even more complicated. I am working with helping people to find themselves and understand how to proceed.

Colin Pereira: Any suggestions for safety and security managers?

Steve Dennis: I am consistently told the major challenge for security advisors is to demonstrate how the measures they have implemented have actually prevented nasty things happening. And that is hard.

I would advise security personnel to get their management to regularly do tabletop exercises of how they’d personally handle the aftermath of an incident. How do they speak to the victims, the families and support their people through the worst parts? Also make them experience what it is like to have their decision-making cross-examined and what their defence would sound like in a court of law.

Colin Pereira: Do you think there are any silver linings to your incident?

Steve Dennis: Somebody from the organisation had told me: “Steven, think of all the positives that can come from this.” This was while I was sleep-deprived, afraid of people in the streets and was having a really bad time.

It was too early and I took it quite hard. So, I remain careful about over celebrating the so-called positives and the whole topic of post-traumatic growth. But someone lost their life in my incident and so my pain is pretty minor.

These days, my wife and I don’t let small things bother us. If a waiter brings us fish and we ordered chicken – well that’s fine.

Steve now works with individuals and organisations, guiding them on their journey from injury and grievance to recovery, while also focusing on skills development and growth. His efforts contribute to enhancing organisational duty of care, risk management and breaking stigmas surrounding mental health issues. To learn more about Steve’s work and how you can contribute to ensure those without the means can still access his support, please visit his FundRazr website.

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