Today we are joined by Colin McIlreavy. Colin started his career in the oil sector but shifted towards the humanitarian sector soon. Colin has yet contributed as a Country Director to many of the most critical international conflicts such as Rwanda right after the genocide. He has also worked with the MSF and Doctors Without Borders. Colin is now working as HQ for security management roles and has recently joined the International Rescue Committee as Chief Safety and Security Officer. Today, Colin will explain to us what made him change the path of his career so drastically, as well as guide us through his experiences in risk areas such as Rwanda and help us understand what are the most important security aspects companies must identify in order to prevent risks.
Today we are joined by Colin McIlreavy. Colin started his career in the oil sector but shifted towards the humanitarian sector soon as he was disappointed by it. Colin has yet contributed as a Country Director to many of the most critical international conflicts such as Rwanda right after the genocide. He has also worked with the MSF and Doctors Without Borders. Colin is now working as HQ for security management roles and has recently joined the International Rescue Committee as Chief Safety and Security Officer. Today, Colin will explain to us what made him change the path of his career so drastically, guide us through his experiences in risk areas such as Rwanda and help us understand what are the most important security aspects companies must identify in order to prevent risks. Moreover, Colin will give us the key tips for achieving what he has achieved.
Colin McIlreavy: Good practices for Security Management in the Humanitarian Field
What risk lessons do you draw on from time to time that you learned in the oil industry?
The similarities that I would pick out between the two sectors is that they are both areas where you are having to make decisions which have serious consequences, based on an imperfect picture of what’s going on. So you have to inform yourself as best as possible with data but also be ready to make your own judgement.
Another fact about the oil industry that I would bring up is that it requires a lot of collaborations with different partners so as to build projects, so I think this is also a similarity with the humanitarian sector
Your first approaching to the humanitarian sector was in Rwanda right after the genocide, that must have been an eye-opening experience for someone just coming into the sector.
I went out there really green I struggled to wrap my head around that something like this could actually happen in my lifetime and in such scale, it was hard to make sense of it. However, the time to reflect at that moment wasn’t long enough because you ended up being very busy with the different projects: water provision or food distribution. But afterwards, when you have the time to reflect, it still raises questions to me and is that how on earth could this happen, and I think going in there really green, into a very deep crisis area, made a profound impression on me, and that was probably the catalyst to change my career direction.
Could you share today some of the security and risk lessons that you learned during your time in Rwanda?
When I arrived in Rwanda, it was already relatively stable. I worked there for three or four months and then I transitioned into one of the large refugee camps for Rwandans in Tanzania, where I was working doing food distribution.
In terms of security, some of the lessons I learned particularly is crowd control at large distributions and just this sense that there is a crowd dynamic, which can very quickly get agitated. I think the lesson of having to always have a maintain vigilance situation awareness and having the necessity to have contingency plans in place, that have already been discussed, tried out and tested with colleagues.
Have you found time to actually test these plans when you are already responding to an emergency?
One of the things that I always try to impress upon my other security management colleagues is to have some basic plans emplaced, keep them as simple as possible and make sure that they are understood and communicated to all of the people that are going to be impacted by them.
I found in many of the organizations where I worked that the knowledge about the existence of a plan and the implications of a plan, gets known within a very tight circle, so when the situation arises and you need to give a response, people are unaware or fail to comprehend what is their place in that plan and it actually means for them.
What are the fundamental building blocks for needed for a successful risk management programme in any organization?
The starting point for a risk management framework is understanding what’s the level and scope of engagement that the organization is going to have. For humanitarian organizations, it’s what’s the potential for programming, what are we aiming to do here and what makes us necessary to be present here. Linked with that, assessment of the need and the viability to respond has to be then, the security risk assessment – trying to understand and identify what are the nature and level of the risk which is present.
What’s your advice to teams setting operations in high-risk environments when they need to establish the context and understand the environment they are working in?
I think context analysis is a key task for security managers in humanitarian aid agencies. Things which stand out for me, when thinking about context analysis, is that it requires a significant investment of time and effort, it is rarely a quick and easy task.
trying to understand this very complex environments which are constantly changing, requires effort and I think humanitarian agencies, the ones who are usually more successful in this kinds of settings are usually the ones that have found a way to make that necessary investment and to maintain that investment over time into understanding the environment they’re in.
What are the tools and methodologies that you and your colleagues used to monitor the environments in these places where you’re trying to achieve programme objectives?
I think there is an array of different techniques and approaches and that one’s may work in one setting, may be less relevant in another setting. I think the starting point is to have curiosity, this willingness to be almost insatiably curious about what’s going on in the environment, not taking it for granted.
In terms of techniques and approaches, we certainly want to look at data and what is known in terms of incidence of violence in general and, more importantly, what is known in terms of incidents which are directly coming to the door of aid organizations.
How do you analyze the risk environment when the data is hard to come by?
There you are often looking for other kinds of indicators, there might not be hard, factual evidence data existing anywhere but, going out and trying to collect these data from people on the ground who has an understanding of what is taking place in their communities and also have a perspective on what are some of the conflict dynamics: what is sustaining or what is driving up. As well, what might be mitigating the factors of violence and anger in a society.
For the full interview, listen to the podcast here: https://theinternationalriskpodcast.com/category/listen/