Michelle Hough in Haiti just after the earthquake.

Michelle Hough in Haiti just after the earthquake.

By Michelle Hough, communications officer for Caritas Internationalis

Working for Caritas, you could be having an audience with the Pope one day and be suddenly heading off to a major disaster or war zone the next. A number of staff at the general secretariat in Rome not only have to be aid professionals in the office, but they also have to know what to do if they find themselves on their own far from home and in a complex and quickly changing security situation.

That’s why I found myself face down in a muddy field in the English countryside two weeks ago. I can’t tell you exactly what I was doing, as I’ve been sworn to secrecy. But it was all part of a personal security training course that I went on with my colleagues Alessandra, Martina and John.

Attacks on aid workers have been on the rise over the past ten years. The UK-based training firm RedR prepares humanitarians for going off to risky places, among other things. The trainers Paul, Phil and Ian put us through our paces for an intense five-day theoretical and practical course first in London, then in Worcestershire. The main focuses were first aid, risk assessment and security planning

“Humanitarian work is one of the world’s most dangerous professions,” said EU commissioner Kristalina Georgieva last year. “Kidnappings, shootings and death threats are all too often part of the job description in places blighted by conflict.”

Ian, the security manager for RedR, told us that the first step in security planning for a trip was to understand where you’ll be working. That means studying the political, economic, social, technical, legal and environmental situations of where you’re travelling to.

A simple example of this would be to make sure that you have a phone that can work on the networks in your destination country – or a sat phone if the phone networks are down due to a disaster or war. A more complex example would be to look at ethnic and religious divisions and understand tensions and how outsiders are perceived.

We learned how to draft a security strategy. An essential part of the groundwork before you even go to a humanitarian “hotspot” is to know who you are as a person (and your physical and mental vulnerabilities), who you are as an organisation and what the local context is.

This raises an interesting question for Caritas. Many people who work for the organisation are Catholics and the organisation itself is based on Gospel principles such as the parable of the Good Samaritan. What if you’re working in a Muslim country with complicated ethnic divisions? Or what if the injured person you want to help as a “Good Samaritan” is in a field dotted with landmines, putting yourself at great personal risk? I don’t have the answers to these questions because it all depends on how you assess the situation at the time.

However, the nature of Caritas means that many of our staff are already live and work alongside the communities where Caritas has projects and they have a lot of local knowledge about the people and the area. Of the three security strategies RedR told us about – acceptance, protection, deterrence – acceptance by the local community is the one that most defines Caritas’ work.

All the same, Caritas staff from other member organisations in the confederation still have to be careful when working abroad. A recent example was when Cordaid (Caritas Netherlands) staff were evacuated from the Central African Republic when rebels started to advance towards the capital, Bangui.

The RedR training was a good mix of theory and practice and as a result I now have the analytical tools to approach field trips from a solid security grounding. However, even though it’s good to be prepared, I hope I’ll never have to use what they taught me.

The best security strategy for a hostile environment, we were told, is “don’t go there”. For this week at least that’s advice I’m going to take and the furthest I’ll be travelling for work is up the Tiber to St Peter’s Square to report on Pope Benedict’s final audience on Wednesday. No security planning will be necessary, I hope.|