Sri Lanka: “If everyone gets scared, who will work for the community?”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

It can take a crisis to reveal gaps in an organisation’s priorities. And when shortfalls are exposed, organisations sometimes find that a lack of internal capacity can prevent them from immediately addressing security issues. As a humanitarian worker with a Sri Lankan organisation, Amanthi knows this reality far too well.

Amanthi, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, works in extremely dangerous situations in order to save lives. She has had some close calls. “There have been a number of times where I narrowly escaped,” she says. “I do not share this information with my family.”

Like many small NGOs, the organisation’s main concern was the wellbeing of the villages and towns for which it worked. “Over the last several years my organisation was always thinking about the priority of service for the community. Our second priority was security,” Amanthi says.

Tragedy struck in 2006, when 17 aid workers from a French charity were killed. It took this moment for Amanthi’s organisation to realise it did not give security a high enough priority. Over the next several years, the group continued to operate without any loss of life. But still, staff remained scared. “We had young people resign from their work,” she said, adding “if everyone gets scared who will work for the communities in need?”

In October 2010, Amanthi took part in security and risk training for managers, an initiative by ACT members Church World Service and DanChurchAid in Asia and the Pacific. “Before the training programme, I knew a bit about security plans and risk management but I just had an overview,” says Amanthi, who has worked in the humanitarian sector for the past 10 years. The training taught her plenty of security concepts she could take back and apply to her organisation.

After the course, a security trainer gave Amanthi’s organisation lessons on developing security guidelines and writing training materials. “Sometimes an external perspective can be helpful to bring out the knowledge that already exists in an organisation in order to develop an internal security plan,” the trainer said.

Amanthi is quick to note that challenges still remain for local NGOs in Sri Lanka, and says more needs to be done to improve security management in the humanitarian sector. To this day, Amanthi keeps honing her skills and deepening her understanding of risk management.

“I learn a lot from the internet because I am very interested in security. I read documents and gain knowledge,” she notes. “I have conducted some training for our staff. They are following some of the points and I am quite pleased…But I still have to conduct more training.”