Over the past few years, there has been a sharp increase in the number of aid workers being targeted for kidnap and ransom. Of all forms of violence that aid workers are subjected to, kidnapping has seen the steepest rise. According to Humanitarian Outcomes, between 2002 and 2014 the number of reported kidnappings of aidworkers each year quadrupled to 121.

This is terrible for aid workers, most of whom are national rather than international staff. It could also prove deleterious for the communities that aid organizations serve. According to the Clements Worldwide Risk Index, 27% of major aid groups and other organizations indicate they have delayed expansion of operations due to kidnap and related risks.

Many observers believe increased risk is a “wake-up call” for the humanitarian aid sector. That is certainly accurate. But what exactly is it the sector has to wake up to?

Simple: All aid organizations have a moral and legal duty of care to ensure that risks to staff are identified and managed, and that staff receives the support, resources, information and training they need to reduce the risks to which they are exposed.

What does that support look like in practice?

Security Risk Management

Aid organizations invest a great deal in physical security and risk management. Security risk management strategies are, however, unevenly implemented. Some aid groups, especially smaller ones, still rely on basic field security guidelines. Others have security manuals accompanied by training courses. Yet others have dedicated safety personnel with fairly elaborate protocols and training.

Yet how many aid groups integrate safety with an overall risk management plan that includes ongoing political analysis, training, tailored insurance security audits and more?

That is the next step in security risk management, a model used by large international corporations. It could very well be the next step in the legal duty of care.

Acknowledge and Address Unique Risks

Many aid workers, especially those working in high-risk locations, face risk of psychological harm. It is not solely up to individual employees to address these risks. It is also an organization’s responsibility.

Managers need to emphasize that, especially in high-risk environments, emotional challenges are real, legitimate and even to be expected. Stigma must be replaced by providing support and care that not only helps individual employees, but the entire organization.

Of course, this is not unique to aid groups. Anything to do with mental health is still stigmatized in nearly every kind of work environment, treated as a “problem” unique to an individual.

Psychological stress is a regular part of work, including aid work. Health care professionals have long acknowledged mental health, like all health, has a strong social dimension. Importantly, the legal system has started to recognize this as well. Openly discussing and addressing the needs of the whole person is good
management—including legal practice.

Culture of Resilience

A resilient culture is a comprehensive approach that emphasizes preventing harm and sustaining well-being. Resilience goes beyond security and traditional psychosocial support. It includes adequate leave, education, planning, networking, healthy management culture and other opportunities that help employees thrive personally and professionally.

A culture of resilience is not created overnight. But taking significant steps to do so is an important demonstration of duty of care. A few examples of steps aid groups can and have taken to create this culture include:

Individual Consultations: Offering confidential, individual consultations prior to a high risk assignment can be an avenue for an employee to assess their psychological readiness for an assignment. It is also an opportunity to discuss potential psychological risks inherent in the assignment. Informed consent is an important aspect of duty of care and such a consultation is one way to fulfill the organizational responsibility. Access to confidential counseling/consultations can help mitigate the ongoing stress of jobs in high risk contexts. Providing consultations as individuals transition out of a high risk role or location can aid in transition, potentially highlight psychological vulnerabilities and ensure that employees know how to access resources and support.

Critical Incident Response. The best way to deal with the stresses produced by incidents like kidnap or injury is to prepare for them. This means training staff and entire organizations to prepare for and manage during and, critically, after an incident. Psychological care, education and support for directly and indirectly affected staff and family members is as important as medical care and financial support.

Peer Support Development. Social support has been found to be protective in times of high stress. It is also important that staff has the tools to support one another. A number of aid organizations have formalized mechanisms for social support by creating and training peer support teams and related groups. These groups can be effective in identifying and addressing concerns early and contributing to a healthy workplace environment.

Now more than ever, there is a need for creative and comprehensive staff care among relief and development organizations. As recent legal cases have demonstrated, there are risks run by neglecting it.

More organizations offer psychosocial support and some have even succeeded in getting this support included in contracts. But much more needs to be done to adequately care for staff working in some of the most risky and stressful places in the world. Without it, the risks become overwhelming, with the risk that aid groups avoid certain places and people. Staff care is a legal obligation. Even more, it’s an obligation to the vulnerable people aid groups assist.

Lynne Cripe is the Director of Resilience Services at The KonTerra Group. She was Director of Employee Engagement, Support and Communications at CARE USA and a technical adviser with USAID. She has worked in more than 25 countries, primarily in high risk contexts.

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