Day 4: Relief - Security training before heading to a conflict area

Today we complete the security training program with a second day in the field. The feedback received constantly from our handlers and from each other is making sure that we perform much better at checkpoints, with wounded team members, with ducking at sirens, and even with taking personal responsibility when things don’t go as they should. In other words, we’re coming together as a team as a result of taking the training (but not necessarily ourselves) seriously.

“Nothing to fear but fear itself”
This quote from FDR has always helped me in periods of doubt and…fear. Yesterday night I went through a mental check of all the calamities that were recreated for us in the field and a quick “gaps analysis” showed that one incident that would undoubtedly befall on us today is a good old fashioned hostage taking…and I wasn’t mistaken. In preparation (premonition?) for that, we repeat some of the guiding principles: objective is to survive; comply; don’t be a hero; but don’t be too accommodating, stay/act confident.

Sure enough the day ends with a huge ambush where we were (again) thrown to the ground, unceremoniously stripped of our shoes (it stopped there…) ordered to keep our face to the ground in a cacophony of blank bullets and explosions.
Then, silence.

It took us many minutes to start standing up, asking each other if everything was OK and whether someone was missing. One of our UNHCR colleagues had indeed been taken by the armed group that attacked us.

I won’t go into all the details (although they were quite lively) as I have a plane to catch…but just to report that we eventually found her, on the ground, seemingly unconscious, and a whole debate went on in the rest of the team about what to do next. I must confess that my own reflex was just the thing not to do and I was thankfully over-ruled: I wanted for a group of us to rush to check if the hooded person was indeed our missing colleague and if she was alright. This would have been a big mistake: she was “wired” with mock explosives. Eventually we did send one person (a “medic”) who did “die”. The right thing would have been to call in a team of specialists who would have cleared the site and undertaken the required checking for explosives before touching or getting too close to our companion. (“delegate, delegate”…again.)

Take-away Lessons
This was an excellent training and I am glad I took it seriously. Beyond the very effective enhancement of our security skills, the training did highlight, in the most graphic terms, key strategic questions that we have to consider as we plan for a potential future scaling up of involvement in a specific conflict area. Two of these questions and suggested answers—shaped or re-enforced by this training—can be summarized as follows:
  • Should we be sequential? Should we wait for relief operations to end and for more stability before we consider development strategies and activities?
    There is consensus (from worldwide practitioners but also among a non-scientific sample of my fellow trainees) that relief work as well as development planning/execution should ideally start in parallel. I still recall that this consensus started emerging in the seventies—but is surprisingly still not complete. Starting development planning early on and implementing it in earnest yields potential advantages with respect to: quick rehabilitation of local livelihoods and therefore resilience of vulnerable households; capacity building of institutions, whether governmental or otherwise; improved accountability with respect to the use of support funds. The condition of course is to ensure that some level of development activity can be undertaken while purely relief activities are going on. In the food and agriculture sector, FAO, WFP and IFAD (all present at the training) have specific initiatives that ensure the link and seamless transitioning between relief and development.
  • Is it worth the risk? Safety of our own team members will continue to be priority number one. This is an unshakeable principle. We are right now involved in development work in many of the conflict areas around the globe. The decision to get involved in additional conflict areas, and at a stage where security is still a concern will definitely require close attention. The pros of course are known: that’s where you have some of the most vulnerable rural poor; it’s the UN at its best; it’s an essential complement to emergency relief. The cons: security risks; frequent over-supply of grant funds; donor coordination needs. Some next steps: (i) we should continue considering scaling up our development work in hostile environments case-by-case; (ii) as was done informally during the 4-day training I reported on, there is a need for exchanging field-level experiences on the relief-development continuum among practitioners and beneficiaries; and (iii) frankly, if the UN does not continue believing and working for world peace through development, who will?

I fly to the conflict area in two days. Looking forward.