5 steps to securing NGO acceptance in the field

NGO workers gaining acceptance in the field at humanitarian development project

To aid positive relationships with beneficiaries at the ground level, NGOs typically avoid a reliance on harder forms of security such as armed guards and armoured vehicles – despite often operating in high-risk contexts. Because of this, ‘acceptance’ is fundamental to most NGOs security frameworks, alongside deterrence and protection.

Through seeking approval from local community actors, organisations are sometimes able to rely on these partners to ensure their security while operating in the field. However, while Healix supports acceptance-based risk strategies, simply delivering positive impacts is not enough to secure local acceptance. Instead, acceptance strategies need to be active rather than passive, and managers need to ensure that field operations not only deliberately attain the approval of local actors, but maintain this approval for the duration of the programme length. Below we set out five steps for securing acceptance in the field.

1. Build relationships with the relevant local authorities, communities and power brokers

Prior to the inception of projects in new field locations, security managers need to identify the relevant power brokers in both formal and informal community structures. Gathering intelligence from the ground will enable these actors to be mapped out, and the relationships that they have with each other to be understood. A comprehensive acceptance strategy relies on establishing relationships with all of the powerful local actors because excluding specific actors from these relationships can heighten their intent to disrupt an NGO’s operations.

Wherever possible, introductions should be made by individuals or organisations that these actors already have a positive relationship with, such as through clan leaders, local politicians, religious leaders or government officials, if not through another NGO or aid agency. Security managers should also consider that while local power brokers may hold influence over the community, they may not be held in esteem by them; therefore NGOs should always ensure that acceptance strategies are multifaceted, and include broad community outreach to individuals at the ground level too.

2. Ensure programme objectives are clearly communicated

The local perceptions of an NGO’s objectives and motivations are some of its most important assets in the field. Security managers should recognise that local perceptions will be shaped in part by communities’ previous experiences with outsiders, whether that be foreign nationals or local nationals from other parts of the country. If a community has had a negative experience previously, their trust in outsiders is likely to be significantly lower. Therefore, managers need to establish programme objectives that can be communicated clearly at the community level, in a way that can be understood. This messaging needs to specifically address any concerns that the local population is likely to have, and be consistently delivered across all field operatives, including via affiliated contractors, partners, and visiting donors.

3. Understand that poor operational efficiency is a security risk

There are few faster ways to jeopardise a community’s acceptance in the field of an NGO than its failure to deliver on the commitments it has made to them. Such scenarios can be inevitable at the field level, especially when relying on new contractors and fragile supply chains, however, from the local beneficiary’s perspective, these justifications can be difficult to understand. It is therefore vital that the expectations of beneficiaries are sensibly managed and that timelines allow margins for delays that could occur. It is always better to deliver projects to recipients quicker than they anticipated than deliver them several months too late. Moreover, if field workers anticipate that the late delivery of operations is likely to frustrate beneficiaries, these concerns must be flagged to the NGO’s security focal point so that consequent risks can be anticipated and mitigated.

4. Employ staff and volunteers from the local community, wherever possible

Communities will find it much easier to accept those who look like them, and share their own cultural identity, language and religion. Moreover, programmes that stimulate the local economy and create job opportunities are more likely to be accepted by the communities that they benefit as the positive outcomes can be directly understood. However, it is also important to acknowledge that employment opportunities in markets where few others exist are likely to generate intense competition. When candidates are unsuccessful in their applications, this can be a significant causal factor in them rejecting an organisation’s operations thereafter. For this reason, recruitment processes need to be transparent and clearly explained, and rejections and dismissals need to be handled with consideration of local cultural sensitivities.

5. Emergency response planning should account for damage to community relations

In the same way that emergency response plans are made to pre-empt the risks faced by personnel in the field, the relationship with the local community needs to be similarly safeguarded. Plans should be in place that can be enacted in the aftermath of an incident that is likely to damage community relations. This could include planning for road traffic accidents that impact beneficiaries for example; security managers should ensure that they have identified which community leaders they will communicate with in the aftermath of such an incident, and how apologies will be conveyed to the broader community. These plans should also ensure that mechanisms are in place to quickly communicate to staff in the field to alert them to any localised damage to the NGOs reputation in the short-term so that they can exercise heightened caution.

When acceptance in the field is not enough to mitigate risk

There will be times where acceptance in the field is not enough to mitigate risks. This is often the case in environments where there are multiple unknown actors with competing objectives, or in environments where the objectives of a programme are clearly in opposition to the objectives of the local power brokers. In these situations, security managers must place an emphasis on the other elements of their security frameworks – protection and deterrence, as well as a multitude of other strategies that can help inform both risk understanding and risk mitigation.

Healix International is the trusted partner of humanitarian and development organisations operating in the field across the world, offering security and medical intelligence, advice and assistance and security assessments. To find out more, get in touch with enquiries@healix.com.

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