Episode 77: Abby Stoddard on Operational Security for Aid Workers

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In this episode Dominic Bowen speaks to Abby Stoddard, a humanitarian policy analyst and a founding partner of Humanitarian Outcomes, where she conducts research and provides analysis and advice to governments and international aid agencies.

Abby discusses her research on operational security for aid workers, as well as the idea of “necessary risk” in the context of humanitarian help.

International Risk Podcast interview transcript with Abby Stoddard

Dominic Bowen 01:30

Hi. I’m Dominic and I’m the host of the International risk Podcast. Today, we’re joined by Abby Stoddard, she’s a humanitarian policy analyst, and a founding partner of humanitarian outcomes. She conducts research and provides analysis and advice to governments and international organisations. Abby started her career in NGOs, including as a programme director for medicines demand, or Doctors of the World USA. But as to humanitarian outcomes. Abby has designed and led independent research programmes and created unique data sets, including the aid worker security database, as well as the global database of humanitarian organisations. And she’s also the author of two books, and many articles. Her latest book necessary risks, professional humanitarianism and violence against aid workers, explores the roles of humanitarian action in conflict zones, and it will be great to unpack some of this with us. And it’ll be great to unpack some of that today. Thanks so much for joining us today, Abby.

Abby Stoddard 02:27

Thanks for having me.

Dominic Bowen 02:28

So, Abby, let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get involved in international humanitarian aid work?

Abby Stoddard 02:35

Right. Well, I worked, as you said, for 10 years in international NGOs, and I had majored in international affairs and got my masters. And that was just where I was interested in working, looking at conflict from the humanitarian side. And I had been working for several years and was programme director at MDM, Doctors of the World when we had an attack on one of our operations in Rwanda. And that particular event really launched I think, my research interest in humanitarian operational security.

Dominic Bowen 03:10

And are you able to explain for our listeners, you know, that attach, the Rwanda that was, was quite a watershed moment, perhaps for your career, what actually occurred? And what inspired you to understand and learn more about security and risk?

Abby Stoddard 03:25

So it was 1997. And it was a project that we were doing with our colleagues from MDM, Spain. And in Rwanda, a lot of the refugees from the genocide were returning at that time. And there was a great strain on the local health systems. So we had a small team of three Spanish colleagues, and one young man who I had actually personally recruited and oriented and sent out. And they were participating and seeing. They were working on a project to help the returnees and had only been there for about a month. And they heard a knock on the door and it was a group of armed men came in, interrogated them, robbed them. Left, and I thought, you know, that they were okay. Suddenly, one of them came back and sprayed the room with gunfire. And tragically, we lost our three Spanish colleagues. The person that I had hired, was seriously wounded and required an amputation of his leg above the knee in the field hospital. And then we had him evacuated out. So obviously, humanitarian work is a dangerous profession. It wasn’t the first time humanitarians had been killed on the job. But back in 1997, it was still relatively rare for something like this to happen. And certainly for such a small organisation as MDM was at the time, it was really shattering. There were not security, there were security assessments but they weren’t to the level that they are. Now there were very few organisations that had full time dedicated security staff. And most organisations, believe it or not, didn’t even have security manuals or protocols that they that they followed. So this kind of set me off into researching and I became actually a researcher at that time with New York University, and later founded humanitarian outcomes, and operational security and safe access for humanitarian work in conflict situations, has always been a key focus.

Dominic Bowen 05:25

Yeah, I’m glad you use that term of events. I’ve access, I talked to a lot of different people. And often I hear the quick response that’s too dangerous. That’s too hard. We can’t let our employees, we can’t sell operations in that location. And I’ve been talking about and helped identifying the problems. Let’s look at it from the other side. And let’s start looking at how do we achieve safe access? How do we can we conduct safe operations in that environment, if we can set up hospitals, if we can run schools, if we can run operations in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and so on? You know, there is a way to do it. But we need to be thinking about how we can successfully achieve that access. I know you recently returned from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has a challenging security environment. How have you personally changed your approach to risk management since collecting and analysing all this information about aid worker security?

Abby Stoddard 06:16

Well, I think one of the key concepts for humanitarian security, which might be different from military force protection, or private security for a corporation, is the idea of the enabling approach. And it’s always easiest for a security officer to keep people safe by just saying don’t go, you know, we won’t go there. And we’re going to keep all our staff in this one safe area. But for humanitarian operations to work, we need to find solutions to enable a to get where it needs to go. So it’s kind of a different mindset. When you’re looking at humanitarian operations. The other key concept, besides the enabling approach, I think, is programme criticality, which means that you will accept a higher level of risk, you know, once you’ve properly analysed your risks and decided what’s acceptable, but you will accept a higher level of risk when the programme is critical. So if it’s life saving aid, you will willingly take on more risk than when it’s perhaps an aid programme that’s not so critical, not life saving. So these two things, I think, are the are the key concepts in humanitarian security. And it’s where the title of my book comes from unnecessary risks.

Dominic Bowen 07:30

Fantastic, I was actually about to ask you about the title of your book, I think it’s a fantastic one. And I think those concepts are really equally applicable, that enabling approach to security risk management is just so critical. And, you know, in the humanitarian aid sector, we talk about, as you said, programme criticality. Within the corporate sector, we talk about business opportunities, and investment opportunities. And in a corporate sense, we will invest in an opportunity, depending on what the risks are, and it’s always a balance and what we can do to mitigate those risks. And as you said, in the humanitarian sector will accept higher levels of risks when the outcomes are more critical. And in the same way, business leaders will make that same decision. If the potential business opportunities or profitability or moving into a new market or staying ahead of the competition or maintaining market share, is so significant than it’s worth taking on extra risks. So it’s quite interesting the way the different sectors, different industries approach it, but you know, really with that same basis, but the name of your book, necessary risks, it’s a fantastic one. And can you maybe unpack that in a bit more detail about why you think maybe there are some necessary risks or why you’ve chosen that is the name for your book?

Abby Stoddard 08:35

Well, taking from the concept of programme criticality, I think that we would all agree that when you have a situation where many will lose their lives, you will accept a higher level of risk. But before you do that, it’s necessary to have kind of an informed consent basis for that. So you shouldn’t be transferring risks to your national organisational partners, or to your local staff, just on the default assumption that we’re going to hold our internationals back and let the national staff do this there from the place, you know, they’re safer, just automatically, it’s rarely true. So the risk assessment has to be done. And once you’ve taken all the proper mitigating measures to reduce those risks, as far as possible, there will always be some risk leftover because there’s no way to reduce the risk to zero. And that’s what we call residual risk. So it’s that residual risk that you’re looking on and saying, well is this something that we’re willing to take on for our staff and for our partners, and different organisations will have different thresholds and this is the issue with the humanitarian response. There are hundreds of separate organisations, they all have their own leadership and governance. Some of them are more risk averse than others. So in many high risk contexts, you will typically find maybe a dozen of the same international organisations joined by a cadre of national organisations, who really should be said, are on the front lines typically doing most of the actual implementation. So it’s this kind of core group that takes on these risks. And by professionalising their security, outlook systems, mitigating measures, they are able to do this and hopefully minimise any harm to staff. That said, my book goes into the fact that humanitarians usually have an attack rate or a fatality rate that’s greater than uniform peacekeepers in those two years, or US military combat troops. So it’s not low risk by any means. But people are doing important work.

Dominic Bowen 10:50

It is very important worker, a really interesting statistics I’ve often discussed when speaking with aid workers is that the military and humanitarian actors are often working in the same environments, but with several differences. But one of the key differences I think that’s often overlooked, is the military, the average soldier or officer within the military spends 98% of their career in training, and 2% of their time, on operations. The average humanitarian at best does a five day course, once every three or four years, and then spends the vast majority of their time in the field. And so it’s a real interesting concept to consider that, you know, they’re working in the same environment, yet one is highly trained, and has huge amounts of support. And then the other is, no doubt very well traded academia, know what very, very well travelled and experienced in the field, but hasn’t had as anywhere near as much practice dealing with or practising security assessments, practising crisis response, practising business continuity. So I think that’s quite an interesting, interesting point that we sometimes overlook.

Abby Stoddard 12:10

Yeah, that is really interesting. I hadn’t heard that statistic. But it’s true that force protection is sort of primary for the military groups and for humanitarians, you don’t have that deterrence. You’re not posing a counter threat by armed protection. In 99% of cases, you are not going if you’re an NGO, you will not have armed escorts or armed guards because they rely on the acceptance approach. So that means negotiating your way in. If you’re a reputable organisation, you will invest in outreach and dialogue with not only community members and leaders, but potential threat sources, so on groups as well, it’s a very different way of operating. And, you know, it’s again, it’s not risk free. But it’s enabled humanitarian action to continue in a lot of places that, you know, in decades past, there wouldn’t even be groups working there.

Dominic Bowen 12:40

Should organisations be seeking and ensuring that they’re actually have informed consent from their employees? I think we’ve come a long way over the last couple of decades in improving people’s understanding of duty of care, and the moral and legal obligations that employers have towards employees. But I think informed consent is still something that we’re really lacking on. How do you think organisations should be pursuing that?

Abby Stoddard 13:15

It’s a tough one. I have never personally signed an informed consent form before going on a mission. I don’t think that’s kind of the standard. So it’s more sort of implicit, but I think it would probably be good to make it more explicit. As organisations continue. One of the things that we’ve been working on here is the idea of risk profiling for different types of staff. So we had said before that it’s no good to make broad assumptions where internationals are at risk, or nationals are safe or vice versa. You really have to look at each individual and other aspects of their identity besides whether they’re an expatriate or a national staff, their ethnic identity, their gender, sexual orientation, everything kind of goes into making a personal risk profile, depending on the context. So it really needs to begin in the security orientation and in the risk assessment that’s done by the organisation starting maybe at headquarters, but any staff member going on a mission or and that includes kind of national staff in the environment needs a full discussion of what the risks are, and making sure that they know what they are taking on when they go. And I think you always have to defer to the individual’s comfort level when it comes to it and some will be willing to take on more risk than others. But then the organisation will draw the line when they just feel it’s too risky.

Dominic Bowen 14:47

It is very interesting though, when you speak to many lawyers and legal counsel with big corporations, when you talk about informed consent, the lawyers will always talk about having signed documentation that the person acknowledges that they’ve given their consent, and they’ve been informed about the risks. Yet, in practice, most of us sign lots of paperwork on our first day in a new job from non disclosure agreements and HR policies and discrimination and acceptable workplace behaviour. But then we never signed anything again, as the as the as we start going on missions, and we travel overseas. So I think it’s quite interesting. And then something that organisations really need to understand-I’m not necessarily saying every time someone goes on a trip, they have to be signing a document, I’ve met people who certainly do think that is the right course of action-But certainly having more of a robust process to make sure people are thoroughly informed of the risks and do proactively considered and give a some sort of an even knowledge of those risks before there are needy.

Abby Stoddard 15:40

Well, you know, I have experienced security orientations, which really go through the potential risks and you know, kind of crisis of scenarios, and then end with you signing a document where you give keywords for your proof of life. So in case of kidnapping, this is what you would say, so that they know that you’re actually being held, and that has a way of really focusing the mind. So I think that sort of orientation. And when it’s necessary, providing the proof of life is a good way to get the individual to understand the sort of risks that they’re walking into.

Dominic Bowen 16:15

Very much, that’s right. And you talked earlier about residual risk. And I think most of us are used to as leaders in organisations getting a risk matrix with a list of risks, organised down one column within the likelihood and then the consequence, and then maybe a few comments on what can be done to mitigate the risk. And then we’re left with the the residual risk, but there’s really a conversation or a very stated and very clear risk tolerance level or risk acceptance level between the board and the people that are ultimately accepting and implementing the programmes and activities. How can organisations really measure what level of residual risk is acceptable to them?

Abby Stoddard 17:00

That’s a difficult one. And I think typically, you’re right, boards will have a different risk tolerance than staffs will, but it really does vary by organisation and by culture. We have a humanitarian outcomes actually put together a guide for programme staff and and organisational leadership to use when talking to their board about risk acceptance and, and explaining kind of what should be acceptable. So that’s something that people can go to humanitarian outcomes.org if they want to see that, but it will really vary by organisation and by culture. And I mentioned my own former organisation MDM, I think that particular incident really changed the organisation, I believe that it has taken on less of a humanitarian response role, it still does respond to emergencies. But I think that really put a damper on it for several years after that, because it was so devastating for the organisation. So you know, boards are made up of people and staffs as well. So it will vary from NGO to NGO.

Dominic Bowen 18:15

And in your book, where you talk about unnecessary risks, you explore a lot of different risks in your chapters, including shootings, bombings, kidnappings, rape, information, security and many other types of risks. Can you unpack some of the key trends that you’ve identified

Abby Stoddard 18:20

Well, I think we’re seeing more interrelationship between risks than we maybe used to realise there is, the obvious security risk, which is harm to staff and potentially to assets and property. There is operational risk that you’re just not able to carry out you’re activities, there are reputational risks, when perhaps there is a misperception or misinformation about your organization’s spreading and legal risks that you might run afoul of either national laws or international regulations and counter terror laws. And the interesting thing is that all of these interrelate and kind of reinforce each other. So if you have a reputational risk, that’s realised, that’s going to be down on your security risk, as well. Financial Risk is something that will create operational risk. And if you had promised, certain programmes that aren’t delivered, because of, you know, financial risk was realised, then that’s also a security risk if you can’t pay your staff, for instance, and this is something that national NGOs in particular face quite a bit. And they are I think in, there’s a real need for the international organisations to co-own risks better with the national organisations and make sure that they have the security inputs, fair contracts, and flexible contracts that they need to operate securely.

Dominic Bowen 19:55

And why is the rate of major attacks against aid workers on the rise? What’s your assessment on that?

Abby Stoddard 20:02

Well, I think it’s mostly to do with the types of conflicts that we’re seeing. When we say that incidents of major attacks are on the rise, that’s true. But it’s every year, typically clustered in four or five or six extreme contexts. And even though there’s humanitarian operations going on in dozens of countries, it’s really the only five or six that have the high numbers of incidents that drive the numbers. So for many years that has included South Sudan and Syria and Afghanistan, and these types of conflicts, which are civil conflicts, and which have some international elements to them. Now, in the past, like the far past, you had traditional wars, where you’d have two sovereign entities fighting each other, and they had a mutual interest in allowing humanitarian aid to come in for their own soldiers, etc. But these conflicts today are asymmetric. And you have non state armed groups, which actually have incentives, not to protect or even tolerate a humanitarian response. But to strike them in some cases. So say, I’m a member of the Taliban, and I’m seeking to before the takeover, and I’m seeking to gain control of a certain area from the government. It’s in my interest not to let services continue and aid to increase the stability of the area because I want to destabilise it. And also, humanitarian organisations are not only rich targets, often but soft targets. And sometimes they only target in some of these far flung areas. So they’re very attractive to strike. They can also be a good source of kidnap victims, which fetch ransoms and an income stream. And that’s a fairly easy type of attack to carry off. So that is a case where it’s going to be more difficult for humanitarian actors to be able to operate securely. Now, once the Taliban has seized control of that particular area, in my scenario, it now has an interest in allowing services to come in, it’s now supposed to be governing in some respect. And in that case, they’ll be more amenable to having humanitarian aid workers come in. So the aid groups have to look at who the armed group is, what their interests are at that particular phase of the conflict. Now, if I’m an ISIS member in Afghanistan, I potentially don’t ever have the incentive to negotiate with aid workers because my ambitions are higher. I’m trying to overturn the world order. So I’m much more interested in the propaganda The benefits of kidnapping an aid worker, or creating a kind of spectacular terrorist strike. So what the book spends a lot of time on is looking at which types of armed groups can be negotiated with when and how humanitarian actors should approach it.

Dominic Bowen 23:18

Yeah, it’s interesting what you said interesting international employees being such a good target for both criminal and terrorist organisations seeking someone to kidnap. And kidnapping is a topic that must come up at least weekly when I’m speaking with different organisations. So I wonder if we can unpack that in a little bit more detail. What are some of the key trends that you’ve seen over the last decade when it comes to kidnapping?

Abby Stoddard 23:40

It’s interesting, kidnapping seems to have a kind of a fad type of dynamic. That’s right to say, you see it kind of startup in a context where it becomes discovered as a lucrative income stream. And potential way to propagandise if you’re a political armed group. And so then you see kind of a lot of it happening. Haiti, that’s happening right now. And Afghanistan, it was until the recent takeover, just a huge source of major incidents. And it was even happening in kind of an odd way in Afghanistan, when the Taliban were not in power, but had control over certain territories. If a groups did not come to them, and negotiate their way in, they would often just round them up and hold them until they could find out who they weren’t what they were doing. So people were actually calling it in formal registration, but if you’re held more than three days, it’s an abduction. It’s a kidnapping. So even though people were released without ransom in most of those cases, it was still a major issue. And Afghanistan, we’re seeing it now on the rise in DRC. Armed groups are doing a lot more kidnapping in the past year or two.

Dominic Bowen 25:00

Whether we call it a kidnapping or informal registration being taken for several days by an armed or a terrorist organization, I don’t think is anyone’s idea of a good day. Can you talk about what you’re seeing with regards to what kidnappings have been resolved positively and kidnappings that are resolved fatally?

Abby Stoddard 25:30

Definitely the vast majority are resolved positively that the person is released unharmed. I think we did an analysis of kidnappings, this was some years ago and we did a report on kidnappings. And they’re the length of time the average length of time that a national staff person spent in abduction was shorter than internationals. Internationals tend to take a lot more negotiation and there’s often an informal ransom being paid at the end of it, but not always. But something more than 80% were resolved without the person being killed.

Dominic Bowen 26:00

It is positive to note that the vast majority of kidnappings are resolved positively. But what do you think organisations can be doing better to support their employees, their travelling staff, their staff that are permanently based overseas or their national staff that live and have grown up in high risk environments to actually avoid kidnapping to start with?

Abby Stoddard 26:15

Well, I think the majority of victims are always going to be national staff as they are the majority of aid workers. But I believe that you’re seeing higher rates of kidnappings for nationals now, even with the disparity in numbers, so it’s more of an issue for national staff and I believe it’s because they do not have the same sort of security umbrella that the internationals do. One of the things that international organisations need to look at for their national staff is do they have safe transport between home and work? Is where they are living, properly secure, do they have the appropriate communications equipment to be in touch with the base And to not treat them as though they’re just local people who come to work, but they are part of this international organisations mission and are at risk, potentially also because people believe that they’re making loads of money, which may or may not be true, but often their salary as working for an international organisation is going to be higher than their neighbours. So national staff need to get the equivalent degree of security inputs as international staff, and national partners. There’s a difference here, because international organisations will have a legal duty of care to their employees, but they will not have a legal duty of care to the organisations that they work through in places where they will not use their own staff for security reasons. We believe and we think that the most of the humanitarian sector believes that there is an ethical duty of care, if not a legal one. And it needs to be it needs to be realised in ways where if your national partner does not have its own security system and protocols and equipment, then you as the international partner need to provide it, or you need to help them develop one. And some donors have pushed this issue by requiring it. USA ID now has in their contracts that if you are going to be subcontracted to a national NGO, either come under your security umbrella, or you must help them develop theirs. So I think that’s a really positive step. Because national organisations survive from contract to contract, they have very small margins, they don’t get the kinds of overheads if any, that international organisations do. So they are in this competitive process where they cut corners in order to be seen as a low cost reliable partner, but it’s often to the detriment of their own staff security. And they will put people overnight and unsafe places or they will send them on public transport and all of these things which can create real risk to them, and which the international sector has an ethical responsibility to address I believe.

Dominic Bowen 29:15

Oh, exactly. And in the corporate sector, you know, we wouldn’t be signing on with a new partner, if we hadn’t conducted robust third party due diligence. And yet in the humanitarian sector, which is meant to be all about humanitarianism and supporting local communities, there certainly is a moral question, if not a legal one, as well, about delegating programmes onto an organisation that, you know, doesn’t have the capacity. And as you said, these are not necessarily complex tasks. They’re not easy, but they’re not complex. Do staff have safe transport to get to work to get to the programme CITES? Is there been an assessment of residential security, which you would always do for your international staff? Asking the local partner how are you assessing the residential security of the staff that are ultimately working for or subcontracting to an international organisation with all the perceptions that brings whether it’s the consumption of alcohol in countries where alcohol is prohibited, whether it’s moral behaviour, whether it’s the employment of women or working in mixed gender offices, or as you said, quite simply just the perception that the staff might be earning more money than other people in the community. So I think it beholds all organisations to really be considering not just delegating on the programme, but also delegating on the risk and what we’re doing to make sure that that is being successfully managed. If we look at risks, specifically, what risks do you think organisations need to be doing more to mitigate?

Abby Stoddard 30:030

I think the number one location of attacks for humanitarians is on the road, still, and has always been. This is because any sort of national and local law enforcement won’t typically extend over miles and miles of roads. So it’s fairly easy to set up a checkpoint or do an ambush. And also, because while aid groups will have security arrangements and maybe security guarantees with threat sources in point A, and point B, where they’re going, they might be passing through areas where they have no such acceptance or security guarantees. So I think security on the road needs to be looked at more in depth and more carefully. I know that some UN agencies were beginning to examine something they called kinetic acceptance, which is you’re not just trying to build your acceptance in Point A and Point B. But with any potential threat sources along the route. But it’s always going to be, I think, the most difficult way to secure staff is on the road. And that’s where you had situations where you’re spending a lot of money on air assets, to get people from place to place such as in South Sudan. So on the road is, is one. Other risks, as I mentioned, the risks to individuals for their personal profile that has to be thought of more, more carefully more in depth, you need to really look at each individual and the makeup of their identity that that might pose another risk. I think the one of the largest obstacles to humanitarian access in recent years has been the counter terror regulations and restrictions on humanitarian organisations. So there’s the fear that even if your assistance ends up inadvertently, in the hands of a sanction group, that your organisation will be penalised for that and donors have not yet given adequate guarantees that this will be the case. And I think there’s just a risk aversion on the part of many NGOs to even take that on. When we were interviewing programme managers for NGOs, and our NGOs and risk project, we asked them what their nightmare scenario was, and it was, you know, waking up to read in the paper that a huge amount of their aid had ended up in the hands of a terrorist group, because that’s an operational security and reputational risk all rolled up in one and it could, you know, spell the end of an organisation. So in order to deal with that risk, this is something for donors to deal with, and they’re beginning to creep up to it. And when I say donors, I’m talking about the large government donors that fund most of the humanitarian response that happens. I think there needs to be more of a blanket exception to humanitarian aid when it comes to these counter-terror regulations so as not to increase the risk of humanitarian organisations who are already taking on so much risk by being in these places.

Dominic Bowen 33:45

Yeah, for sure. I mean, risk doesn’t operate in a vacuum. And I think sometimes when policies are made, whether they’re by governments or organisations or stuff in the field, there’s a failure to consider that it has knock on effects. And the second and third order effects of a certain policy decision or a decision made on certain activities can often result in actually greater exposure to risks further down, they’re further down the line. I know you just returned home, and when you’re travelling around the world, and you’re speaking with colleagues in the field, what are some of the concerns that are repeatedly being expressed to you?

Abby Stoddard 34:17

So I was looking at particularly the Red Cross and local branches. And I was really impressed by these local organisations, which have very few resources. They have international support, but the national societies do the best they can with their limited resources. And they have volunteers who are incredibly motivated and inspired to work in ways that you know, in many other NGOs, you kind of don’t have that same situation. So what when I asked them what they needed to feel more secure. And of course, they all feel quite insecure, in certain areas where they work. I heard what I expected to hear, which is well, we need more, you know, safer means of transport, we need to be able to call the base and be in touch with the base, which means someone has to pay us for phone credits in order to have this communication like and we need more visibility branding jackets, so that they know that we’re who we are. What I didn’t expect to hear but which made me feel good as someone who’s created the aid worker database was that we have to track and monitor our incidents better, we need to have a list of incidents that have happened in the area just so we know what’s going on. So we can start to analyse, who’s doing it, what the trends are, and make decisions based on this data. And I think that’s, that’s really crucial, because without having that data, you’re, you’re flying blind. And I was appreciated that they, that they figured that, that they figured that out, and that they consider it a priority, not just sort of down the line, it would be nice to have, but it’s kind of a primary thing that they would like to see happen in the near future. And there are some, you know, minority voices that say that, you know, concentrating on data and sort of counting up this incidence is pointless, but not according to those who are facing the most severe risks.

Dominic Bowen 36:20

Yeah, I’d say not definitely not relevant for anyone that’s facing the risks, and definitely not relevant for anyone that actually wants to make informed decisions, who wants to be doing intelligence operations, and making decisions based on the facts. So it’s, it’s great that you’ve been receiving that feedback having.

Abby Stoddard 36:40

Yes, and I just want to point out that the aid worker security database is not relevant to somebody at the very local level, you know, they’re not going to look at sort of global level incidents and countries to do, although it could assist them. But what you want to do as a as an organisation, is look at every single security incident that may have happened. So incidents of harrassment, threatening letters, stones thrown at the car. And it’s really that that you could start to take the temperature of the local environment and make decisions. So global databases, like DWSD are good for sort of higher level analysis, and potentially resource allocation if you’re if you’re a global organisation, but it needs to happen at the very local level for everyone to have that kind of situational awareness.

Dominic Bowen 37:25

And have you before I let you go, I have to ask, what are some of your concerns as we as we move into 2022?

Abby Stoddard 37:30

Well, I guess I was speaking to someone, an NGO in Myanmar last night, and I’m worried about what’s happening there. A place like that, where the impediments to access is not just insecurity or poor logistics, but really government restrictions. And similarly, with Ethiopia, I’m afraid we’re going to see major conflicts and humanitarian crises in countries with autocratic, very strong states that effectively prevent the provision of humanitarian assistance or at least create big obstacles to it. So the combination of insecurity with armed conflict, and government obstruction is spells the worst possible situation for humanitarian access. So it’s those kinds of situations I’m worried most about

Dominic Bowen 38:28

So true, Abby, I mean, from a country that was really a pariah, 10 years ago, but then came out of that, and there was really people were racing corporates and humanitarian organisations and governments were racing to get in there, to get a bit of the pies that country opened up where from a humanitarian point of view, whether it from a diplomatic point of view, or from a corporation looking to get into a new market, and then all of a sudden, all of a sudden, we’re back to where we were 10 or 15 years ago, with the flick of a switch. It’s really quite scary how countries can regress really?

Abby Stoddard 39:02

Ethiopia as well. I had recently done a study for a UN agency, where everything seemed to be kind of on the upswing, but there was this caveat that, you know, should there be a conflict in which the government is a party, you are so closely entwined with the government, and they have such firm control over the humanitarian response that you’re not going to be able to operate independently at that point. And lo and behold, that’s what we’re seeing now.

Dominic Bowen 39:30

Yeah, I was in Ethiopia about a year ago and the political and the security environment is so much more complex than what I could have imagined beforehand, but getting access to move to different locations to speak to different actors is much more tightly controlled than I think most people realise. Well, look, I really appreciate you coming on the podcast today. It was a really interesting conversation about aid worker security about the risks for internationals and local staff, as well as some of the key trends that you’ve been seeing.

Abby Stoddard 39:57

Well, thank you so much for having me on. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about this research.

Dominic Bowen 40:00

Yeah, thanks Abby. And also, thanks very much for your work on the aid worker security database and the global database of humanitarian organisations, certainly, tools that I and I know a lot of other people have used over the years. So a fantastic resource, and we’ll certainly link to those in the show notes. Have a great day and thanks very much for listening today, everyone.

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