Working in high risk environments: can one protect too closely?
Risks of working with NGOs in Kabul
In the past twelve months I have undertaken a variety of assignments in training, research, and process facilitation with international and national NGOs in Kabul, working almost exclusively with Afghan NGO workers. Life in Afghanistan for everyone has become increasingly insecure and hazardous over the last ten years as insurgent activity has escalated. In the last year, with the transition of responsibility for security to the Afghan forces complete, the level of armed conflict has increased markedly and areas that were previously deemed relatively safe, including large parts of the capital Kabul, are now off limits for international workers. The targets of insurgent attacks in the towns and on the major highways continue to be government forces (military and police), government officials and foreign diplomatic missions and military personnel. Association with any of these carries considerable extra risk to the individual.
Every trip to Afghanistan is fraught with challenges regarding safety and security. It is not just a case of looking after one’s own safety by not putting oneself in harm’s way, or not drawing unwanted attention to oneself by inappropriate or culturally insensitive behaviour. The challenge is also about being careful to ensure the safety of those with whom one is working – local Afghans and their organisations. When coming and going on short trips to Afghanistan, it may well be those who remain in the country after one has gone who will bear the terrible consequences of perceived provocation by a foreigner.
Close protection as a requirement
This year I have been involved in training a number of national NGO members of an NGO fund. Owing to the particular arrangements surrounding the fund’s financing and implementation, I have been required to accept close protection provided by the diplomatic mission for all travel while in the country, and Afghan participants have been required to come each day to the embassy in which trainings have been held. While understanding the obligations of the duty of care of the contracting agency, these arrangements have been a cause of considerable concern for me and forced me to reassess the conditions under which I am prepared to work in fragile environments.
Reassessing my conditions of work in fragile environments
Firstly, travel in armoured vehicles with heavily armed close protection officers between prominent places along highly congested highways is always very visible and is clearly offers a (slowly) moving object for both planned and opportunistic terrorist activity. In the past 10 months, two close protection teams with their civilian passengers have been the subjects of fatal car bombings in Kabul, causing serious casualties to ordinary Afghan passers, as well as to passengers. Having spent a large part of the last five years working in Afghanistan, I found that travel under close protection a deeply disturbing and scary experience.
Secondly, and perhaps more important for our work with civil society, I immediately realised that putting international civilian workers under close protection sends out a series of contradictory and counterproductive messages to the people we work with which can only undermine the social and peacebuilding missions of those Afghans committed to rebuilding the country. Close protection implicitly militarises development; it also implicitly prioritises the safety and perceived importance of foreigners and their (western) values they apparently import to the country; and potentially it also creates a dangerous perceived link in the eyes of insurgents between national NGOs and international military and diplomatic targets, with possibly severe implications for the safety of the wider civil society community.
Alternative strategies for good security in NGOs
My first experience of close protection has forced me to take a less complacent approach to working in Afghanistan and all fragile environments. I have made it a condition of any engagement anywhere that I do not not travel under close protection. When working with both national and international NGOs, who in almost all cases approach security from the perspective of maintaining as low a profile as possible while maintaining as great a distance from military personnel, vehicles and installations as possible, I have also taken a more rigorous line on checking that organisations have well-developed procedures for security risk management and, crucially, are absolutely satisfied that they are not endangering their drivers, guards, and other staff, by working closely with foreign consultants. The upshot of this has been the cancellation of one particular training and a long delay in the organisation of another owing to a protracted process of making arrangement for a trusted NGO to take responsibility for my travel and safety while in town.
But in the end, loss of time and the costs of renegotiating agreements and arrangements are small prices to pay for personal safety and protecting the long-term engagement of civil society.