Looking for a Career Niche? Consider NGO Security

By Philip Dwyer

This past Sunday, March 18, al Qaida militants gunned down a Pennsylvania-born development worker in Yemen.  Al Qaida claimed that Joel Shrum, who was teaching English at a language institute, was “proselytizing under the cover of teaching.”   In January of this year U.S. Special Forces parachuted into Somalia and rescued aid workers Jessie Buchanan and her Danish colleague from armed gunmen. In October 2011, British aid worker Linda Norgrove was killed in Afghanistan during a similar rescue attempt.

By the nature of their work, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) send staff into insecure environments, often times warzones—countries like Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq. Nearly every country in Africa has some level of development presence.  In the decades since 1990 the amount of international development activity has significantly increased due to major developments in technology, our ability to travel the world freely, and events like the global war on terror.

From 2000 to 2008 the number of violent acts against, including the killing of, aid workers rose from 42 per year to 165, according to the 2011 Aid Worker Security Report.  Only in the last few years have those numbers begun to decline.  The total number of incidents reported in 2009 was 129.  One theory accounting for this recent decline are stepped up efforts of NGOs in areas of risk and security management.

These organizations now understand they need to spend money on security.  As the economy begins to recover from the downturn and world events continue to focus both media and public attention on deplorable conditions, the international development sector will continue to grow, and so will the amount of money spent on security.

So if you’re looking for a job in the security industry, I have a suggestion: NGO Security.


To remain a well-paid security professional means you need to stay “in-demand” in today’s job marketplace.  One great way to keep the demand up is to find a career niche and establish yourself in it.  Many security professionals are realizing the benefits of focusing in an area of the security industry and building their personal ‘brand’ as an expert in that niche.   Examples of niche security areas include maritime security, extractive security and VIP close protection.

To suggest that finding a niche and establishing yourself in it is easy or happens overnight is wrong; it will take time and dedicated effort.  You might have to say no to some contracts and hold out for others in order to amass a density of requisite expertise.

The point here is the niche strategy: find one and focus on it completely, the career payoff could be tremendous.

International NGOs (INGOs) address a wide range of social issues such as fighting hunger, relieving pain, and developing infrastructure and capacity in developing nations.  They seek money from donors to do this, and they compete to win projects funded by government agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).

NGOs are often called ‘implementation partners’ because they are doing the work on the ground to advance the policy and strategy objectives of their donors. They’ll hire the young hippie chick who wants to save the world and send her somewhere that might be scary.  That organization has a ‘duty of care’ obligation to fulfill relative the hippie chick and that’s where security comes in.


Armed security is only part of the answer, and only sometimes.  The way an NGO approaches risk and security management depends on many things, but most importantly it depends on money.  Security planning and implementation costs, there is no getting around them.

Generally speaking the security triangle model (Van Brabant, 2001) comprised of protection, deterrence and acceptance holds true in the NGO world.  On one side of the spectrum you have the large USAID implementation partners who can often afford to have in-house security departments that oversee contracts with private security contractors (PSCs) who provide deterrence in the NGO’s operating regions.  More often you have small NGOs with more modest budgets for security.  When they operate in non-secure regions they adopt the acceptance part of the triangle more openly and depend heavily on clear lines of communication with the beneficiary population to warn them of threats.

The real answer is that NGOs both large and small are finally spending money to develop their own operational security frameworks.  These frameworks are comprised of security policy, minimum operating security standards (MOSS), training, and standardized communication tools used to convey security relevant information such as alerts, specific threat analysis, etc.  This is the right approach to security and will help to further reduce security-related incidents.


There are a range of security related positions relevant to NGOs; from the organization’s Director of Security to a local, static security guard.  NGOs are like businesses in many ways, most of them want to grow and expand.  This means they need to view security as an enabler, not a constraint. They need that outlook to be at the foundation of their security platform and they needs security professionals who support that mindset.

The uncompromising mindset doesn’t work here: “No, we can’t go in that direction at all; it is far too dangerous and everybody has to be back in the residence by dusk, no questions asked.”  Ok, the situation might dictate that posture now, but for some in the security profession this mindset is the context for decision making all of the time.  This is not the mindset of the successful NGO security professional.

If you really want to be good in this niche you need to approach things differently.  Be always mindful of your ultimate charge; the safety and security of your client but be creative and offer alternatives. Don’t give the team a blanket “No”. Think outside the box and help them get to a “Yes”.  Figure out a way to use security to enable their core business and you’ll become the team’s rising star.

One type of security position within the NGO community that I see as influential is that of “Regional Security Advisor”.  Different organizations will call the job different things but the role is pivotal because it sits at the crossroads of policy and tactical implementation.  This is a security professional who makes things happen in the field within the context of the organization’s security framework.  This person, generally, has the following skills:



  • Qualified security and/or risk management background.  In many cases military experience is good here.
  • Specific, on-the-ground experience in the region which the position covers
  • Excellent written communication abilities.
  • Networker.  Can build or expand a network of contacts quickly and can do that
  • Patient enough to work with an organization who might view security negatively.
  • Level-headed enough to think quickly and rationally on their feet in sometimes dangerous situations
  • Consultative in nature viewing security as a business enabler


NGO security is a great niche to pay attention to now because it only gets bigger in the future.  If you’re a security professional who has overseas experience and even experience dealing with NGOs or USAID, you’re already headed in the right direction.  Another trend to keep in mind comes back to the major PSCs.  As current conflicts wind-down, or at least get smaller, these companies are going to be forced into areas like NGO security as larger contracts dwindle.  I see this happening now; major security contractors who aren’t already doing it are eyeing NGO security.

If they’re looking at it you should be too.  The real question is; will you be positioned to get these security jobs when they open up?

Phil Dwyer works for SCN Resouces Group.  He can be reached at philip.dwyer@scn-rg.net.


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