“Unfortunately, it has become part of our reality in most of the countries where we operate. Aid workers in conflict-affected areas face challenges on a daily basis that prevent them from carrying out their tasks,” says Sarah Kilani. She leads NRC’s work to help people in those areas that are most difficult to reach.
A roadmap with ambitious goals
NRC strives to be a leader in bringing emergency aid to the most inaccessible areas of the world. For the past ten years, we have worked hard to increase our capacity to manage new and old challenges. Sarah Kilani is among those who have created a roadmap for how to reach our goal.
“We already work in 27 of the 35 most inaccessible countries in the world, but we still have room for improvement. Our focus is always on what we can do to increase access to services for people in the most challenging areas.”
The importance of principles
The four guiding principles of humanitarian work – humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence – underpin NRC’s approach and that of other aid agencies around the world. We have limited resources, so these principles help us determine how we prioritise the assistance and how we deliver the aid. In addition, International Humanitarian Law regulates the rights and obligations of warring parties including the provision of humanitarian assistance during armed conflict.
“These principles and foundations are increasingly coming under threat,” says Kilani. “States and armed groups are complicating the work of aid organisations, preventing humanitarian access. But if we are to succeed in reaching those most in need, it is important, now more than ever, to use the principles as decision making tools.”
Better knowledge and new technology
If we are to help those who need it most, and get the most out of our limited resources, we must know as much as possible about the needs and conditions on the ground. Many of the places we work are very complex. For example, our teams have to deal with different actors and also manage environmental factors such as bad weather conditions and roads.
“We identify the areas we want to operate in and gather as much information as possible on the context – most importantly the needs of the communities. We talk directly with the people we hope to support as well as our own staff, who often come from the same communities,” says Kilani.
“In places that are difficult to access, we use remote methods including online technology and social media. We work with our frontline teams as well as partners such as ACAPS to process and analyse the data we collect, so that we can make quick and accurate decisions.”
She highlights new and smarter ways of providing help.
“By understanding markets and giving people cash, for example, instead of food or relief items, we can help more people with the same resources.”
A new mindset
Kilani believes it’s essential to be flexible and innovative.
“We use technology and knowledge that we and others have developed,” she says. “We have also strengthened various support functions in the organisation, such as ICT, HR and security, that are essential for effective operations in difficult environments.”
She points out that risk management is a key factor: “But to achieve this, we must change our mindset from ‘when should we leave’ to ‘how can we stay’ to ensure a significant and lasting positive impact on the communities we serve.”
Innovation is not just about using technology. We are trying to rethink the most fundamental paradigms of humanitarian aid. In recent years, there has been a tendency for aid organisations to operate from “bunkers”. Threats and attacks on humanitarian aid workers are countered by travelling in armoured cars and working in offices surrounded by walls.
“This is a trend that NRC and other aid organisations are working hard to change,” says Kilani. “If we are to succeed in reaching more people with the help they need, we must move away from this ‘bunker’ approach and find more innovative ways of working, especially with communities.”
Good training also strengthens our ability to conduct high-level humanitarian diplomacy.
“We train our teams to understand and apply humanitarian principles in the field, as well as humanitarian negotiation skills so that they are better equipped to face these challenges on a daily basis. The result is that our frontline team is able to engage with whomever is holding the keys to the places we are needed the most,” she says.
She points to an example from Nigeria: “Developing negotiation strategies built on an understanding of the context and relationship building with various actors have enabled us to overcome some of the limitations facing many organisations.”
Well looked after
NRC also works hard to ensure our staff and partners are prepared for the tasks facing them, and able to handle the daily risks they encounter in their work.
“The NRC security team runs security courses and the organisation provides training and psychosocial support to staff who work in areas with major security challenges and who experience stressful situations on a daily basis.”
Our ability to access funding and resources is absolutely crucial to our ability to operate in the areas where we want to be.
“We work closely with donors and foundations to ensure that the resources are used in the best possible way”. says Kilani. “Hard-to-reach areas often come with their own unique challenges that require different kind of resourcing and more flexibility.
NRC also works closely with other aid agencies and the governments and authorities in various countries to get the most out of limited resources.
“We build on our experiences and share them with other humanitarian actors through official coordination structures and informal linkages so that we are not constantly reinventing the wheel and more people can benefit from the lessons learnt.”
Standing up against external pressure
A report from NRC shows that the international fight against terrorism challenges the independence of aid organisations in a number of ways.
“Counterterrorism measures and sanctions can limit the ability of humanitarian organisations to engage with non-state armed groups and to negotiate access,” Kilani explains.
In January 2020, the outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that he planned to designate the al-Houthi movement (one of the warring parties in Yemen and officially called Ansar Allah) as a terrorist organisation.
According to ACAPS, 70 per cent of Yemen’s 30 million people live in areas controlled by the al-Houthi movement.
Humanitarian voices make a difference
“NRC was one of several aid organisations in Yemen that strongly warned against designation of the al-Houthi movement, as it would lead to huge humanitarian consequences,” says Kilani.
In February, the US government announced that it intended to revoke the designation, and Mohamed Abdi, NRC’s country director in Yemen, was happy to welcome the decision.
“We welcome the decision by the US government to revoke these designations, which would have had catastrophic humanitarian consequences and hampered our ability to get food, fuel, medicines and aid into the country. This is a sigh of relief and a victory for the Yemeni people, and a strong message from the US that they are putting the interests of Yemenis first.”
A fearless spokesperson
Increased access to, and knowledge of, those we are to help and the areas they are in also improves our position and influence when we take on the role of spokesperson.
“We have strengthened our role as a spokesperson for displaced people through developing our understanding and building evidence. Local leaders, national authorities, donors, governments and the international community are then more inclined to listen to us to a greater extent. This also applies in cases where sanctions and measures against international terrorism impede humanitarian work,” Kilani says.
When we use our voice, we ensure that some of the world’s most vulnerable people are not left to fend for themselves. We try to ensure that media coverage increases, paying more attention to neglected crises, with the aim of highlighting the circumstances communities are faced with and improving the chances of humanitarian aid reaching them.