Jason O’Connor Of The Global Interagency Security Forum (GISF) Shares His Insights
Jason joined GISF in December 2020 as Deputy Director for the Americas and since then has been helping NGOs deal with the fall out of the pandemic.
Prior to that he worked for World Vision as a Global Security Advisor and Security Trainer as well the United Nations in Iraq, Liberia, Cambodia, Jordan and South Sudan, IOM in Jordan and Liberia, and the OSCE in Kosovo.
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How disruptive was the pandemic to humanitarian projects and do you feel the gradual resumption of international travel, at least in the west, will help kickstart this work?
Across the board, most travel came to a halt and any trips had to be approved at the highest levels. Budgets and training were also frozen or stripped.
The NGO sector had to adapt quickly. Any international travel had to be approved at the highest level after a lot of contingency planning and access to vaccines discussion – all taking place in an environment of misinformation and disinformation.
Today, in addition to some work travel we see people getting back to in person training, forums and networking. It is case by case and in different countries, you are at different levels, but it’s a gradual return to the new normal.
At GISF, we have introduced a Covid Benchmarking Survey to enable our members to learn from each other across the sector, what people are doing with regards to return to work, travel and vaccine policies.
Equally, do you think the drive towards localisation helped with project resilience during the pandemic? How is localisation changing how security is run and does this present any challenges for NGOs?
Localisation was already in the process of happening in the industry. We have learned through disaster management that local response is often best. Covid accelerated this process and organisations that had already begun were best set up to continue operations during the pandemic.
However, localisation can involve a transference of risk – and this needs to be done in a thoughtful, responsible way that ensures there is equitable funding and support for the local partner.
From a security perspective, there are of course differences. Right now access to medical care for humanitarians is a serious issue. There needs to be a fair approach to what local partners can access compared to what some internationals have access to.
What do you think will be the last effects of the pandemic on risk management in the NGO sector? Has it changed the way risk assessments are perceived in the industry?
Of course the pandemic demonstrated the need for proper planning and assessment. Generally, the way in which humanitarian organisations do assessments is pretty methodical and comprehensive. There does seem to be a greater appreciation of what security managers do as the pandemic meant better engagement between security, HR, legal, Finance and IT. Covid has highlighted the need for collaborative approaches in risk management.
How do you feel the sector is adapting to the growing importance of digital safety and information security threats? Are threats and best practices being shared among peers?
I think the focus on digital safety has been a necessary trend.
Many, because of our international travel experience, will think digital security is about electronic devices/apps and crossing international borders. It’s important to remember that phishing attacks and ransomware are also becoming a more serious issue. I know many organisations are talking about new strategies that involve secure digital tools, devices and cloud-based servers.
Looking forward, we need to be conscious about emerging technologies like blockchain. I know some NGOs are experimenting with it in beta version to see how it works in the humanitarian space. Due to the pace of change it’s essential that we move away from the existing way of doing business where you have security managers on one side and IT managers on the others – working in silos. Physical threats and digital threats intersect so it is crucial that we respond in collaborative manner.
Do you feel the security function in NGOs have embraced digitisation and do you have any good examples of how digital tools can bring benefits?
There is so much potential for digital tools to help the localisation process as we can do so much remotely now. You can have a subject matter expert remotely assisting a security focal point on the ground with assessments. Devices like smartphones to drones means you can participate in remote assessments. Digital tools absolutely improve the ability to share knowledge and provide support. It’s two-way as well. When working in new contexts national staff and local partners can use digital tools to better illustrate their working environments and challenges. All these digital tools will improve the entire collaborative process – from working with local partners as well national offices working with HQ.
Where I do see some lag is in terms of adoption. It is really important for organisations to have integrated digital security risk management systems where everything is tied together to include security assessments, security plans, incident tracking, incident management, investigations, and international travel advisories. Some organizations are already recognizing that the use of digital platforms help them identify risks and threats that otherwise go unnoticed like trends with road traffic accidents or fraud. In the end the use of digital tools centralizes your information, improves your overall duty of care, and frees up a tremendous amount of time to focus on our main goal which is helping people in need.
Do you think there is any wider significance of the US/French pull out of Afghanistan/Mali for the NGO sector? With certain countries now turning to others – what impact do you think this will have from a security perspective?
When you see a retreat by countries like the United States or France it may result in worse humanitarian outcomes. I’m not suggesting they are perfect, but I do believe in some contexts they do a better job than others of holding host countries to account on internal issues related to human rights, protection of civilians and democracy. If a host country is not partnering with a country that prioritises these issues, then it could be the case that there is little incentive for the host country to provide as much protection to NGOs. So moving forward, there could be greater dangers to communities in need, marginalized populations, and to NGOs trying to access humanitarian spaces.
On 5 November, GISF will be hosting an event – Behind the Scenes: Safe Humanitarian Action – to discuss the critical work that security professionals play in keeping aid workers safe, to understand how the next generation of aid workers thinks about their safety and highlight what opportunities exist in security risk management for those interested in working in the humanitarian sector.
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