Capstone Project
30 June 2020

International Council of Voluntary Agencies Publishes Students' Capstone on Security Risk Management

Emanuel Hermann and Silvan Oberholzer, both pursuing a Master in Development Studies, conducted research for the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) as part of their Capstone Project, which gives students in the interdisciplinary master programme the opportunity to apply their analytical skills and deliver practical research projects with partners in International Geneva.

Please explain your Capstone and the importance of your findings.

We conducted our Capstone on security risk management (SRM) in the humanitarian sector in cooperation with the International Council for Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) based in Geneva.

ICVA was interested in how SRM was included in decision-making processes and how it affected the work of humanitarian NGOs, particularly if it led to organisations being less willing to engage in high-risk areas.

Over eight months, we interviewed representatives of international as well as local humanitarian NGOs, donor agencies, and experts working on SRM in humanitarian action. These interviews were complemented by an online survey for humanitarian practitioners who were either directly responsible for or involved in SRM processes.

Our research uncovered two major findings. First, security risks received far less organisational attention than either reputational or legal risks. Where security risks were taken more seriously, risk management procedures were often generic rather than tailored to a particular operational context. Second, we found that certain underlying SRM practices triggered the transfer of risks to an organisation with a limited capacity to manage such risks.

To address these practices, which put human lives directly at risk, we argue for a security risk-sharing approach.

What is a security risk-sharing approach and what does it entail?

With security risk-sharing, we refer to partnerships on an equal footing between international humanitarian NGOs or donor agencies and their implementing partners.

The security threats for implementing organisations need to be discussed through open dialogue to better understand what international humanitarian NGOs or donors can do to support the capacities of their partners to adequately mitigate security risks. For instance, they can encourage implementing organisations to include budget lines for SRM to ensure that enough resources are allocated for safety measures.

Additionally, they can provide partner organisations with context-specific security training based on their partners’ existing knowledge and experience. These are just two options to prevent negative risk transfer practices in a context in which larger organisations are often reluctant to grant funds for organisational development and capacity building while smaller local organisations are competing for contracts.     

What did the Capstone offer you that was unique in terms of learning experience?

The Capstone was, in many ways, an enriching experience. On the one hand, we were able to get first-hand insights into how humanitarian actors try to mitigate security risks for their staff. Talking to representatives of local NGOs was especially interesting since they are often the least powerful actors in these processes and are sometimes forced to take on great risks. How they deal with these situations and the risks they are exposed to was particularly striking.

To be able to critically reflect on current decision-making processes and SRM practices in the humanitarian sector, we first had to understand existing debates and practices around our topic. Building on this, we were able to draft the recommendations.

On the other hand, we experienced that perseverance and patience during and after the research process were key. It was great to see that our efforts were rewarded when ICVA invited us to publish a shortened version of our Capstone report, that allowed us to disseminate our research to a wide audience. Through our publication, we hope that we can provide a platform for a renewed dialogue between international and local humanitarian NGOs as well as their donors.

Your research was presented by the ICVA during a webinar. Could you explain about the presentation and what it meant for your research?

Prior to the webinar, a shortened version of our Capstone report as well as the full version were published on ICVA’s website. The webinar, hosted by ICVA and Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP), was organised around these publications and our research was directly presented to and shared with more than 300 professionals working in the humanitarian sector.

This knowledge exchange again highlighted the relevance of discussing SRM in the humanitarian sector beyond tools and technicalities, with special consideration given to local humanitarian actors. We hope that the webinar and the following discussion encourages humanitarian actors to critically reflect on the underlying patterns of existing SRM processes and their consequences.

Has the Capstone helped your future job prospects?

Right now, this is very difficult to answer. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the job market, for graduates and in general, seems to be particularly difficult. However, the Capstone Project has definitely provided us with a unique opportunity and experience to gain further insights into the humanitarian sector and to acquire skills that are relevant to our future careers.

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