For those too busy tweeting about #innovation or the #WHS to notice, this week a court in Norway ruled in favor of plaintiff Steve Dennis against the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). NRC was found guilty of “gross negligence” for how it handled the 2012 kidnapping of four of its staff in Dadaab, Kenya.
At this point the industry-wide implications of this landmark turn of events remain to be fully seen. But even at these early days, I feel comfortable saying that after 25 years of humanitarian work, this comes as close as anything I’ve seen yet to being “game changing.” Nope—it wasn’t the PUR sachets or the IKEA T-shelters; it wasn’t “big data” or “open data” or “crowdsourcing” or ICT4D; it wasn’t the fuel-efficient stoves or the solar powered cell phone chargers or direct giving.
The most game-changing thing to hit the humanitarian industry since its inception is simply an outside legal opinion that aid and development employers—from the UN system, all the way on own to the college sophomores who started their shoe-collecting charity—have duty of care obligation toward their employees. And further, that humanitarian staff have a right to expect proper training and preparation for work in high-risk places, as well as employer-provided care, and perhaps even compensation after the fact.
Of course, much of it comes back to money.
Every humanitarian provider now has to consider a dramatic increase in the cost of sending someone into a potentially dangerous context. If, say, I, as an employer am required to pay for expensive training for staff, and may possibly be sued if my staff encounter danger, I am going to think very hard who I send where. I think we’ve seen the beginning of the end of the clueless noobs showing up in war zones. I think we’ve seen the beginning of the end of large numbers of expats on relief ops.
Without knowing intimately the details of Mr. Dennis’ case against the NRC, it feels as if some measure of justice was served by this recent ruling. #AccountabilityWin. However let’s not forget the NRC doesn’t actually have its own money: it receives grants and donations which it then spends on behalf of its donors, presumably for relief and development work. This precedent, then, will have a dramatic effect on how all of us relate to our donors. We will have to build in security training and after-care into budgets, both of which are expensive, and both of which will have to be paid for by donors.
And, it’s important to be clear: This stuff will all fit under what everyone would call “overhead” (although I’m confident I know a few finance officers who could find a way to bury “counseling after being abducted” under programme costs…). Which means the cost of delivering aid just went up, a lot. Which means we now have another non-optional category that goes into the HQ, “overhead”, or global budgets. Which means yet another uncomfortable aspect of what we do that has to be explained to donors who (thanks to us mis-educating them for the past four decades) still think that the basic measure of aid efficiency is low absolute cost.
We have some challenging conversations ahead, as well, around whether this aid thing is or is not a profession. Because if it isn’t, why would we bother going to the trouble and expense of sending someone who’s not a professional and actually good at this. And if it is, then our overhead is very high—much higher than even we were willing to admit before—and we can kiss goodbye to all those “buy a goat for $100 and lift a family out of poverty” marketing schemes, because in reality it’ll be more like $500 or maybe $1,000 to gift that goat (which probably won’t lift the family out of poverty anyway).
Right now some of you are thinking, “Ah, yes, but Steve Dennis was an expat, and expats are expensive. We can save all that money by doing more with local.” Good point. #notreally. Consider that the majority of kidnapping and violent attacks against humanitarians are against locals. How long do you suppose it will stay a secret if INGO A provides one level of security training and follow up care for expats and another for locals? Exactly—not long at all. Suddenly you’ll find The Guardian reaching out to your workforce to tell their stories anonymously. Suddenly local staff just got as expensive as international staff (which, ironically, erodes arguments on both sides of the expat/local and INGO/Southern NGO debates).
There is some potentially very interesting fallout for this in the whole North/South, Big INGOs = “evil” and small NGOs = “efficient” conversation, too. Once again, it comes back to cost. If security training and staff care after traumatic exposure are assumed requirements, then we’ve just put many of the smaller NGOs and certainly a fair share of the startup charities out of business. Those NGOs, of all sizes and origins, who choose or feel they have no choice but to treat security and staff care as optional luxuries are one incident and subsequent settlement away from a financial and possibly a public relations meltdown. NRC will survive, for sure. But it’s possible to envision a single incident like this putting a smaller, less established player completely out of business.
Those organizations who can actually afford to swallow the cost and provide fair and reasonable duty of care toward their staff are going to be established household charities and the UN system. It’s one more blow struck against “small” and “local.” The cost of doing business suddenly went up, and it’s possible to envision a sector-wide playing field where those who can afford to pay that cost fit into a certain and very predictable profile (hint: it’s not small, local, recently started up NGOs).
Many NGOs, including some established ones, shamelessly play on the sacrifice-for-the-greater-good angle as part of their employment strategy. And sure, fair enough–there’s a sub-demographic within the aid industry that sort of loves the moral high ground of only being able to afford crappy apartments and having no choice but to ride local transportation. Here again, though, I think we can quickly see how things have changed. It’s one thing to expect your staff to live lives of personal deprivation via low salary and poor benefits, but expecting them to roll into dangerous places with no prep and no assurance of follow-up care, should things go pear-shaped, takes “self sacrifice” to a whole other level.
And finally, it’s easy to say, “well, that was Dadaab… a place famous for being dangerous. We only work in Cambodia, a famous tourist destination.” Let’s be clear: the duty of care extends far beyond extreme events like kidnapping. If you require your staff to, say, travel by road, air, or public transportation for work, Steve Dennis’ win against NRC concerns you. The majority of aid worker deaths and injuries are cause by road traffic accidents. Look, we live in a world where Starbucks puts a warning on coffee cups.
Starting to get the picture?