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The Principles of Equitable Security

by Kelsey Hoppe, Safer Edge CEO

A colleague at the British Red Cross introduced me to the principle of equitable security. It underpins their approach to security provision. The phrase completely captured what I’d struggled for years to express. It communicates precisely the safety and security provision humanitarian and development organisations should seek to achieve.

Today, equal provision of security is the aim of most organisations. The result is a few people receiving an extremely tailored service while the majority’s needs are unaddressed. Why?

Safety and security – or duty of care – in most organisations is not equitable. The system is not equitable. How do we know? We’ve been providing ‘equal’ security for years, and yet we leave people out. We talk about people left behind labelling them as having ‘additional vulnerabilities’ and ‘diverse characteristics’.

When you want to know who a system is for, who benefits from it, look for whom the system is ideally suited. Who never requires an additional briefing, or doesn’t complain about the system not meeting their needs.

Spoiler alert! Most safety and security systems work perfectly for white, western, English or French speaking, heterosexual men. It doesn’t work as well for women, the LGBT+ community, non-English speakers, racial and religious minorities and national staff.

We should recognise that all systems are biased in one way or another, usually toward the group/s of people who built them. This doesn’t make them malicious or even inappropriate. They become insufficient and irrelevant when we pretend that they meet everyone’s needs.

Elodie Leroy Le Moigne writes in her blog: Objections to LGBTI+ inclusion in humanitarian work, Many security managers believe that there is a ‘normal’ person for whom they are providing security. That approach views security as a solar system with the ‘normal people’ being the sun, the big thing for which security is supposed to work, and then the ‘others’ rotating around those for whom the system was designed. But security designed for one person, or one group, is valid only for that particular person or group.”

Whenever we start trying to provide ‘additional’ security advice or training for specific people, the hidden bias of the entire system is laid bare. The frustrating result is safety and security provision doesn’t meet the needs of the majority of our staff and we hive them off into more and more groups for whom we have to develop 'special' support.

Let me use the well-known illustration of three kids trying to watch a game to explain the difference between equal and equitable security provision:

In the first image, everyone gets the same security provision and it is assumed they will receive the same benefit from that. We’re treating them all equally.

For example, white, western, English-speaking men receive security advice written by white, western, English-speaking men and delivered by white, western English-speaking men. For them, security is accessible and beneficial.

Women, or those in the LGBT+ community, or a racial minority are provided with the same information and advice and still receive some benefit, but the service is less suited to their safety concerns. Sexual violence is covered briefly, if at all, and it's mostly advice about women's behaviour - where they should and shouldn't go, what they should and shouldn't wear. There is no mention of how to navigate the restrictive laws or culture regarding homosexuality. There is no conversation about whether someone of a specific ethnicity might be in additional danger due to how they look.

Meanwhile, national staff never receive any benefit because the system is in English and focused on training and equipping those coming from Europe or America.

In the second image, it is recognised that different individuals need different support to make it possible for them to have equal access to safe working. They are being treated equitably.

Security provision is modified to ensure that information, advice and training is more inclusive, diverse and accessible. For example, people of various genders or sexual identifications teach the training and facilitators come from a diverse ethnic, religious and career background. Provision is in multiple languages. Sexual violence is discussed in all security trainings and approached as a threat for everyone - not just women. Risks related to all people’s sexuality and interpersonal relationships are covered. Provision is provided in-person where possible but also online for those who can’t access it in-person. Suddenly, the provision is equitable rather than just equal.

There’s no real reason why this can’t be the case in every organisation.. It’s not difficult. It doesn’t cost more – in fact, providing equitable security might save us money. But, it will be uncomfortable because it’s not how we’ve always done things.It will require us to listen to people who are not the ‘security experts’. Very few women, LGBT+ individuals or minorities, or national staff, after all, are security managers.

We could stop here and if every organisation was providing equitable security then this would be a huge leap forward. But I believe we need to go farther.

In the third image, all the individuals can see the game without any additional support or accommodation because the system has been changed and thus the barrier removed.

We need to start imagining a world where photo three is possible. We need to completely dismantle, examine, and rebuild our approach to safety and security.

What would that look like?

- - We could begin by recognising that risk assessments are written from a perspective and understanding what that is.

- - We could build a system recognising that every individual has different capabilities, characteristics and behaviours that protect us at certain times in certain places and endanger us in others.

- - We could embrace the motto that ‘no one is safe until we all are safe’ and begin to view the safety of women, racial minorities, and the LGBT+ community and national staff as integral to all our safeties rather single out the individuals who need 'special assistance.'

- - We could build a system where the threats to our national staff are taken just as seriously as the threats to white, western foreigners working on the same programme.

Doing this will be difficult using our current means and approaches. I would argue that to adopt the principle of equitable security we also have to adopt an intersectional approach to security.

And that is another blog entirely…


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