Saving Lives and Staying Alive

Humanitarian Security in the Age of Risk Management

Edited by
February 2016 9781849046510 192pp


Most humanitarian aid organisations now have departments specifically dedicated to protecting the security of their personnel and assets. The management of humanitarian security has gradually become the business of professionals who develop data collection systems, standardised procedures, norms, and training meant to prevent and manage risks.

A large majority of aid agencies and security experts see these developments as inevitable — all the more so because of quantitative studies and media reports concluding that the dangers to which aid workers are today exposed are completely unprecedented. Yet, this trend towards professionalisation is also raising questions within aid organisations, MSF included. Can insecurity be measured by scientific means and managed through norms and protocols? How does the professionalisation of security affect the balance of power between field and headquarters, volunteers and the institution that employs them? What is its impact on the implementation of humanitarian organisations’ social mission? Are there alternatives to the prevailing security model(s) derived from the corporate world?

Building on MSF’s experience and observations of the aid world by academics and practitioners, the authors of this book look at the drivers of the professionalisation of humanitarian security and its impact on humanitarian practices, with a specific focus on Syria, CAR and kidnapping in the Caucasus.

Table of contents

Preface — Mego Terzian

1. Humanitarian Security in the Age of Risk Management — Michaël Neuman and Fabrice Weissman


2. On Danger, Sacrifice and Professionalisation: MSF and the Security Debate — Michaël Neuman

3. Danger, Risk, Security and Protection: Concepts at the Heart of the History of Humanitarian Aid — Bertrand Taithe


4. Violence Against Aid Workers: The Meaning of Measuring — Fabrice Weissman

Box: Security Incident Narratives Buried in Numbers: The MSF Example — Fabrice Weissman

5. Humanitarian Security Manuals: Neutralising the Human Factor in Humanitarian Action — Monique J. Beerli and Fabrice Weissman

Box: Who Benefits from “Duty of Care”? — Jonathan Edwards and Michaël Neuman


6. The Duty of a Head of Mission: Interview with Delphine Chedorge, MSF Emergency Coordinator in Central African Republic — Michaël Neuman

Box: The Case of “Dangerous Patients” in Yemen’s Governorate of Amran — Michaël Neuman

7. Qabassin, Syria: Security Issues and Practices in an MSF Mission in the Land of Jihad — Judith Soussan

8. The Shadowy Theatre of Kidnappings: An Account of Arjan Erkel’s Rescue — Duncan McLean


‘Humanitarian work has always been dangerous, though cultures and perceptions of risk have changed — ranging from the heroic spirit of chivalry to the mundanity of actuarial calculus. In this comprehensive and critical — and rivetingly frank — collection, MSF once again shows its capacity for thoughtful engagement with the toughest humanitarian dilemmas.’ — Alex de Waal, Executive Director, the World Peace Foundation, Tufts University

‘Is it worth risking lives to save lives? Is the humanitarian spirit of sacrifice a delusion, requiring harsh security restraints, or is risk management a contradiction in terms? This book questions the validity of a remotely controlled, apolitical and technical approach to staff security, and argues that, in a climate of operational uncertainty, nothing trumps trust in the judgment of seasoned staff on the ground.’ — Dirk Salomons, Professor of International Affairs, Columbia University

‘Dealing with one of the most pressing security issues in our present age of conflict — the safety of those who save others — this book directly confronts some of the painful tensions between the desire to increase the safety of volunteer medical workers and the frustrations of that process. This is essential reading not only for risk management and voluntary organisation experts, but also for a wider audience as a testimony of our times.’ — Michael Power, Professor of Accounting, London School of Economics, former Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Risk and Regulation, and author of Organized Uncertainty: Designing a World of Risk Management

‘At a time when gaining humanitarian access is increasing difficult and dangerous for international aid workers, MSF’s Saving Lives and Staying Alive is essential reading for anyone wanting a candid first-hand account of the fraught policy, practical and political issues that accompany the attempt to help others in a polarised world.’ — Mark Duffield, Emeritus Professor, Global Insecurities Centre, University of Bristol

‘A timely and important contribution to debates about humanitarian security and the security management sector. Drawing upon decades of operational experience, MSF challenges accepted wisdom and offers a thoughtful critique of the evolution and professionalization of the sector. The book is a must-read for humanitarians everywhere.’ — Larissa Fast, author of Aid in Danger: The Perils and Promise of Humanitarianism

‘Saving lives at risk, especially in war zones, always carried considerable risk for those aid workers, quite literally, put their lives on the line.  But the risks have risen considerably over the last two decades.  With characteristic thoughtfulness, iconoclasm, and a willingness to hold a mirror to itself and the entire sector, MSF has produced a first-rate volume that courageously interrogates two principal questions. One, to what extent has humanitarian action become a graver danger to aid workers, and, if so, why?  What are the results from the system-wide efforts to reduce these risks through a program of “risk management”?  Has the professionalisation of risk management reduced or, ironically, increased the risk?  and for whom? A fascinating study that offers a distinctive examination to an urgent question.’ — Michael Barnett, University Professor of International Affairs and Political Science, George Washington University, and author of Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism

‘This book makes a valuable contribution to on-going discussions related to risk and security in humanitarian response. These contemporary debates regain their rich history in the book’s first two chapters, while existing forms of data collection and analysis, and associated technical security documents, are heavily critiqued in the section that follows. The final chapters not only exemplify the diverse forms of detailed qualitative analysis that can be used to gain a deeper understanding of security incidents, but stand as testament to the complexity of humanitarian programming in contemporary crises.’ — James Smith, Medicine, Conflict and Survival


Michaël Neuman is Director of Studies at MSF–Crash. He joined MSF in 1999, alternating between missions in the field and positions at MSF headquarters. From 2008—2010, Neuman served on the board of directors of the French and US sections of MSF. He is co-editor of Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience (2012).

Fabrice Weissman is Coordinator and a Director of Studies at MSF–Crash. A specialist in Sub-Saharan Africa, he has been working with MSF since 1995, and spent many years in the field. He is the editor of In the Shadow of ‘Just Wars’: Violence, Politics and Humanitarian Action (2004), and co-editor of Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience (2012).

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