GELI Stories – How a Critical Juncture unlocked the path to reform on duty of care within the aid sector

March 25, 2024

     By Duncan Green     

In the latest of this series of podcasts with UN and other aid leaders making change happen on the frontline, I talked to Federico Dessi of Humanity & Inclusion, about a breakthrough in the treatment of national staff in humanitarian settings.

Duncan: With me now is Federico Dessi from Humanity & Inclusion, who’s got a story about how work that seemed to go nowhere suddenly picked up pace and had a breakthrough because of a window of opportunity. So Federico, do you want to tell us your story?

Federico: Sure. I was country director for Syria, for HI back in 2017, 2018. For several years, within the Syrian response, several NGOs had been supporting Syrian NGOs working inside Syria, in some areas of central and southern Syria that were under opposition control. These areas were coming under growing pressure from the government, and there was an expectation that one day in the future they might be taken over by the government. That produced a lot of anxiety from the side of Syrian NGO workers on what would happen to them, plus, of course, the risk, the daily risk, of being injured or impacted directly or indirectly by shelling, airstrikes, etc.

Several Syrian NGOs and some international NGOs were discussing about putting in place some rules for duty of care, some minimum forms of assistance that the international NGOs would be bound to provide to the staff of their Syrian partners in the event of injury, of disappearance, of displacement, etc. But that conversation actually was not translating into any practical action, because often either the leadership of the international NGOs, their compliance departments in HQ, or the donors who were funding the INGOs were saying, ‘well, no, sorry, actually we cannot fund that kind of stuff. I mean, if we want to cover the risk of injury, we should insure them, but of course, insurance companies will not be insuring people in opposition pockets’.

Duncan: So to an outsider, this looks scandalous, right? These people are going into war zones, and the people who are funding them will take no responsibility if things go bad.

Federico: This is what was happening, exactly. But there was, again, a growing feeling that this was not correct, but also we’re sort of stuck in terms of, okay, how can we make it acceptable for our own internal decision makers, for the donors, and how can we make it eligible within our budget?

So some NGOs started to draft a list of situations in which staff would be eligible to assistance and forms of assistance, so a payment, such as a relocation allowance for staff displaced during a war event, financial compensation in case of injury or disability, psychosocial support for staff who require that, et cetera. And then suddenly in 2018, the government actually started to retake those opposition pockets first around Damascus.

When the first big pocket fell in February 2018, suddenly those NGOs who had already been discussing that internally for a long time decided, well, now is the moment to act. Within a week or two they got approval internally, they took the risk and they implemented the policy. In HI, for instance, we completed our draft within a couple of weeks, we sent it out to all our donors, and then we started making payments to staff who had been displaced, to staff who needed support.

Based on this first experience, as the war ground on and more opposition areas fell into government control in 2018, the Syrian INGO Regional Forum, the SIRF, managed to get everyone to reach a consensus among the INGOs to establish minimum standards for duty of care for INGOs within the Syria response. We didn’t stop there. We took the document and shared it with the Syria Strategic Steering Group, the SSG, which is the equivalent of a Humanitarian Country Team (HCT). The SSG and the UN leadership read the document and said, ‘this is interesting, but we need to adapt it. We would like this to be applicable also for UN agencies’. So they established a small working group with some UN agency members of the SSG and some NGO members. And this working group in a couple of months produced an adapted version that suited also the way UN agencies work.

Duncan: And this whole thing from getting the INGO agreement to the SSG took two or three months?

Federico: Yes, as far as I remember it was about three months. Then the SSG endorsed and disseminated recommendations for duty of care for all humanitarian actors within the response. Based on that, at the same time, some NGOs organised advocacy discussions in New York. It took a long time, but we managed to establish these standards of duty of care for Syria. Why not propose these standards or develop similar standards also for other crises across the world? Based on these discussions, the United Nations Security Council the next year, on 1st of April 2019, organised a specific session, a formal briefing to the UN National Security Council members on protection of aid workers and duty of care for aid workers. And two international NGO CEOs were invited to speak and one of them was our CEO, Manuel Patrouillard.

Destroyed neighourhood in Raqqa

Duncan: And what, has that now happened? Is that now… that duty of care, is that now standard in some sense, or is it now just in the conversation?

Federico: I mean, soon afterwards COVID happened, and so that blocked a bit the possibility to pursue this kind of direct advocacy. And priorities also changed a bit, I would say, for the humanitarian community as a whole, at least in 2020. But that continued to feed the conversation on the risks that aid workers face.

Federico Dessi is the Regional Director for the Middle East Programme of Humanity & Inclusion (HI). He has 17 years of professional experience in the humanitarian and development sector. He was Country Director for the Syria response for HI from March 2016 to September 2020 and served for two years as INGO representative in the Syria SSG and as SIRF board member.

March 25, 2024
Duncan Green


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