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Risks of Aid Work in Pakistan

NONGOVERNMENTAL organizations (NGOs) operating in Pakistan face a deteriorating security situation, and they are finding it challenging to adapt.

Many development groups went into Pakistan too light on security, says Mike Blyth, director for Risk Strategies for RSM Consulting, who is working with NGOs and development companies in Pakistan to improve their security and risk management. One reason for this, he says, is that they failed to forecast what the risk picture would be six or 12 months after they arrived, and another reason is the U.S. government initially apportioned too little of the aid funds—as little as 1 percent, according to Blyth—to security.

Security budgets are now more appropriate, he says. But funding isn’t the only impediment. For example, Blyth says, nearly all NGOs and development services providers are using “soft” or unarmored security vehicles in their Pakistan operations. Many are now seeking armored vehicles, but they could have to wait up to a year, because of a backlog of orders for the vehicles.

Blyth says that while NGOs have traditionally relied heavily on an active acceptance strategy in which they build a rapport with the community where they provide aid, many in Pakistan are now also starting to use armed guards.

That shift is not unique to Pakistan. According to a recent study on the use of private security providers in humanitarian operations worldwide conducted by the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG), the contracting of certain security functions has become increasingly common among aid providers. The study notes, however, that “the use of commercially contracted armed protection, including armed guards and armed escorts, remains very much the exception.”

One concern for aid organizations, according to the HPG study, is the low pay and weak management of local security providers, which are used more often than international providers (generally as unarmed guards).

Blyth suggests that organizations do more mentoring of local Pakistanis to train them to serve in security management positions. Not only are expatriate security providers expensive, but they generally don’t speak the language or know the culture as well as a local would. RSM Consulting is working with its local partners to build up risk management and consulting skills.

The Netherlands-based Centre for Safety and Development (CSD), a nonprofit organization that provides NGO security training and consultancy, also trains local security directors or security focal points in Pakistan in management-level security. CSD director Ebe Brons calls the collaboration the “best of both worlds.”

“We join up with each other, so it’s almost West meets East,” Brons explains. “We have a certain structure, we have a certain way of thinking about risks, but we do not have the contents to fill this framework. And these Pakistani directors fill this framework with their knowledge and their skills, and it seems to be a good combination.”

Aid groups are also trying public outreach. InterAction, a coalition of U.S.-based international NGOs, plans to push back against groups and individuals who advocate violence against humanitarians with a global ad campaign that says it’s not okay to kill aid workers, according to John Schafer, the group’s security coordinator. “We need to build a full spectrum approach to building acceptance and that includes public-service announcements—[telling people] what we are, what we do—and going up and down streets,” Schafer says.

Experts say collaboration between development groups could be another effective tool. In 2004, a group of international NGOs in Quetta in Pakistan’s Balochistan province formed the Balochistan International NGO (BINGO) Consortium to act as a network for the exchange of security information and analysis. But in 2005, the Pakistani authorities ordered the consortium to close and terminate all activities, according to the NGO Security Collaboration Guide, which was funded by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid.

The reasons for the mandated shutdown were unclear, the guide says, although NGOs felt the decision was motivated by personality clashes and the Pakistani authorities’ general opposition to consortium structures, rather than opposition to the project.

“There is a major need for security coordination in Pakistan,” Schafer says. Currently, it is only being done informally through telephone calls and infrequent meetings, with very little analysis of the information.