Saving lives and staying alive

In recent years the capture, imprisonment and murder of aid workers in conflict and disaster relief zones has become distressingly commonplace. MSF’s reflections on the phenomenon will be required reading

When MSF nurse Chantal Kaghoma regained her freedom in August 2014 after being held hostage for thirteen months by rebel group ADF (Allied Defence Forces) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, she said, “While I was in prison with all the other hostages, I had lost all faith in everyone. Deep down, I no longer believed in MSF. I thought to myself, ‘Well, it’s all over now; this is the end.’” Then she added, “But, even though I no longer believed in MSF, I found myself coming to its defence.” Three of our colleagues are still being held by the ADF and the organisation continues its efforts to track down their location and secure their release. A specially dedicated team has been working tirelessly for more than two years with the firm conviction that a positive outcome is possible.

This example reflects the principles that guide MSF in managing the security of its international and national staff. Chantal, like any MSF volunteer, is aware of the risks inherent to our deployment of relief operations in environments destabilised by war, epidemics or natural disasters. While there is no such thing as zero risk, she also knows that our practices are geared towards reducing danger. We gauge these dangers against the results we expect to achieve with the populations we serve and launch operations only when we are able to clearly identify the authorities with whom we can negotiate the safe access we require to deliver our medical assistance. We also endeavour to put together teams suited to the settings in which we work, in terms of numbers and skills. Lastly, and maybe most importantly for Chantal’s colleagues who are still being held captive, MSF does everything in its power to secure as quickly as possible the release of its staff.

We firmly believe that, for our relief operations to be effective and serve their intended purpose, we must rely largely on teams of volunteers assisting people in the field. Since the organisation was founded in 1971, violence has claimed the lives of thirteen international personnel and many more national staff members. Over the past few years, MSF’s French section has experienced numerous security incidents, including kidnappings, robberies and attacks on our hospitals. We have developed a number of tools for managing security: an incident database created by the Belgian section in 2009 was rolled out in 2013; specific security modules have been added to existing staff training programmes; and we have updated our official policy on risk-taking in the field, which reaffirms the principles shared by all members of the Association. Lastly, we have produced a handbook that provides guidelines on kidnap resolution. All of these responsibilities are assigned to a “security focal point”, a position created for the first time in our section’s history in 2013.

We are not, however, completely satisfied with these developments. We are especially concerned about the exponential growth of procedures and docu-ments designed to oversee the work of our colleagues in the field. Many of these procedures and training courses convey the impression that the inap-propriate behaviour of volunteers is primarily to blame for any violence com-mitted against them. This perspective holds that they need to work under the supervision of a higher authority, particularly that of managers at headquarters wanting to follow security-expert recommendations to the letter. I do not share this view and I hope that the organisation is able to distance itself from such a centralised and dehumanised approach to humanitarian action.

In saying this, I am well aware that we are not always able to do better than others in meeting all the challenges involved in keeping our volunteers safe. We cannot deploy international staff to Syria or work in Somalia and we were probably overly cautious in our response to the Ebola epidemic. We have, however, been effective in other dangerous situations: in Gaza during Israel’s “Protective Edge” military operation; in Central African Republic; and, more recently, in the centre of war-torn Yemeni city Aden.

We must analyse unsparingly our past experiences and draw the necessary conclusions to improve our practices. For that reason, I asked CRASH to con-tribute to the reflection on staff security and the place of risk management in our projects. This book is the result and I share both its findings and its perspectives.

Its findings, because they show that the dominant risk-management culture is not up to the task of providing convincing answers to the concerns of aid workers. And its perspectives, because I am convinced that we can better ensure team and project security by placing our trust in those who run the projects in the field and that we, as a group, must show ourselves to be capable of discussing openly and collectively each of our very unique experiences.

Read the article about the book on MSF website

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