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Aid workers have found themselves increasingly at risk of violence and attacks in the last 20 years. As a response, humanitarian organisations have started using more and improved security measures to protect aid workers, including contracting private security companies (PSCs). However, despite this trend, the utilisation of PSCs by these organisations and their potential impact on both external perceptions and operational dynamics have received limited analysis.

In this article, Gianmaria Dall’Asta, former Managing Editor of Private Security Conversations and Research and Policy Intern at ICoCA, delves into the possible consequences that INGOs hired by PSCs may have on the humanitarian space. The Author argues that the involvement of security companies hired by humanitarian entities can potentially contribute to the militarization of the humanitarian space, inadvertently projecting an inaccurate image to local communities. This misperception carries the risk of further compromising the safety of aid workers and undermining the crucial principles of neutrality and independence that guide their efforts.



Private Security Companies (PSCs) have become a recurrent presence in conflict-affected regions or areas affected by political, economic or social instability. Their use by humanitarian organisations calls for researching their impact on the work of humanitarian workers, their operations, humanitarian architectures, and the local communities, elements that can be broadly grouped and defined as the “humanitarian space”. PSCs have become increasingly involved in providing security for humanitarian organisations operating in conflict or crisis-torn zones, but their use can be controversial and raises ethical questions. 

Therefore, it has become relevant to understand whether PSCs hired by humanitarian organisations, primarily for protection services, contribute to the potential ‘militarization’ of the humanitarian space. Additionally, it is crucial to explore if this engagement might influence the principles of neutrality and independence. The following analysis is based on several interviews conducted between May and October 2023 with UN and NGO professionals working on humanitarian action and security.[1]

However, it’s important to recognize the complexity of the humanitarian landscape. In some instances, such as those involving drones, unmanned weapons, or shelling, the presence of security personnel on the ground may not directly correlate with the risks faced by humanitarian workers due to their external perception. Therefore, the insights provided in this article pertain specifically to certain contexts and may not be applicable across all scenarios.

The risks have increased, and so have the presence of PSCs

Starting from the mid-2000s the number of PSCs at the service of humanitarian organisations has been increasing. According to a humanitarian security expert in Geneva, this expansion has been influenced by the need to address insecurity, the increasing privatisation of security across various domains (which has naturally extended to the humanitarian sector), the broader trend of professionalisation within the humanitarian field (but arguably also its general expansion), and the risk-averse policies enhanced by security professionals working within humanitarian organisations. 

Indeed, the stakes are extremely high. According to data coming from the Aid Worker Security Database of Humanitarian Outcomes, the number of humanitarian workers killed or kidnapped has increased since 1997. In 2022 alone, 444 humanitarian workers were victims of attacks with 116 killed, 143 wounded and 185 kidnapped.[2] In 2023, the figures surged, with 535 individuals falling victim to attacks, resulting in 261 fatalities, 196 injuries, and 78 kidnappings. Humanitarian organisations have therefore started to implement practices and policies to prevent any possible attack on humanitarian workers by increasing the level of security in and around humanitarian operations. This response reflects broader trends identified in research on ‘humanitarian securitization’.[3] As shown by Deborah Avant, the strategy of humanitarian organisations of relying on local acceptance has shifted, in some cases, towards giving increased attention to protection and deterrence.

This brought external PSCs and security professionals into the humanitarian field. According to a report published in 2021 by the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA) and the Global Interagency Security Forum (GISF), 82% of the surveyed aid organisations have requested services from private security providers. This shows how, as the security architecture of aid gets more organised, it has now become common practice for humanitarian organisations to have strict security protocols and protection measures in violence-affected contexts. Having external – at times armed – protection services, something once unthinkable for humanitarian organisations, has now become the norm.

Security providers have been able to respond to this increased demand. To do so, they now offer a variety of services such as security training, risk assessment, threat analysis, live monitoring, warning services, personal protection and convoy, protection of compounds and venues, and the broader provision of unarmed and armed security guards. A report published by the Humanitarian Policy Group highlights how organisations also resort to private security services because of limited expertise and time to effectively address the complexities of worsening security conditions, financial expenses and administrative complexities associated with managing security functions internally, and to safeguard against potential liabilities.

The implication of the use of PSCs on the humanitarian space

The use of PSCs is creating both risks and benefits in the delivery of aid and the humanitarian space more broadly. It is therefore important to consider the consequences this has on humanitarian workers, the architecture of humanitarian compounds, the perception of humanitarian workers and organisations by the local community, and on the application of humanitarian principles. 

After conducting interviews, it emerged how the use of PSCs by humanitarian organisations can be controversial and open to debate. On one hand, they are justified and necessary actors who can assist humanitarian workers in the most challenging environments by effectively protecting their lives, supporting logistics, increasing access in certain contexts and even assisting in emergency evacuations. On the other hand, they may present potential challenges and, in extreme cases, could pose a risk to aid workers and the people they assist.

Several authors have underlined how the presence of security guards and the role of security professionals has increased what has been defined as the militarization of aid or the ‘bunkerization’ of INGOs’ compounds. The presence of (armed) security guards, unnecessary ultra-fortified compounds and exaggerated threat analysis have the potential of jeopardising the delivery of aid. In this context, external perception is a key factor.

Perceptions of security guards in humanitarian contexts

The use of security guards by humanitarian organisations can have profound implications for the external perception of humanitarian actors and their ability to maintain neutrality. PSCs might be seen differently by different actors present in the humanitarian space. There are arguably two main dimensions to consider when examining this issue. 

The use of security guards by humanitarian organisations can have profound implications for the external perception of humanitarian actors and their ability to maintain neutrality. PSCs might be seen differently by different actors present in the humanitarian space. There are three main dimensions to consider when examining this issue. 

Firstly, PSCs may work – or have strong and questionable relations – with multiple entities simultaneously, including humanitarian organisations, private companies, or even political figures. Some interviewees highlighted how this convergence of actors, not only may blur the lines of neutrality but also poses additional risks for the humanitarian organisation relying on the same private security company that other entities use. Using the services of particular security providers may generate concerns among the public regarding the organisation’s adherence to humanitarian principles and values. This dimension becomes particularly significant when a specific PSC is known to have committed human rights abuses or violated International Humanitarian Law (IHL).[4]

Secondly, some interviewees underlined how external perception can be influenced by power dynamics among different ethnicities and the geographical origins of the security personnel employed by PSCs and the local community. Different ethnic or regional groups may hold negative perceptions or consider certain groups with animosity. Consequently, the presence of security guards from a specific population or ethnic background may compromise the neutrality of humanitarian actors, as they may be perceived as aligned with a particular group and lose their status as impartial actors. 

Thirdly, overly stringent security measures can profoundly shape how humanitarian actors are perceived externally. For instance, relying on armed guards or excessively focusing on perceived risks beyond reality can negatively impact how operations are conducted on the ground, thereby affecting the image of humanitarian actors.

Therefore, it is important to understand the general perception of security guards among the local population. Especially in the case when excessive security measures are in place, the use of security guards by aid providers may create a gap between the humanitarian workers and the aid receivers. The excessive security measures can also be connected to the economic dimensions of the security sector. As highlighted by a UN humanitarian professional, PSCs–driven by profit motives–may have an incentive to reinforce the perception of insecurity to offer their services. Their ability to support the provision of impartial humanitarian services can be undermined as a result. 

This can occur in different ways. For example, by establishing relationships between PSCs and local armed actors that may intentionally endanger the organisations working without protection, by increasing the perception of insecurity through misleading risk reports that fail to represent the actual situation, or more simply because of peer pressure among humanitarian organisations to not be perceived as having inadequate security.

Additionally, as argued by de Groot and Regilme, although security measures are essential to ensure safety, they also increase the general militarization of the humanitarian space. This typically occurs through the implementation of physical barriers such as big walls, armoured vehicles, and guards, but also through the recruitment of security managers and professionals, increasing the physical and psychological disconnection and the detachment with the local community. Some experts interviewed for this research underlined how this increases the likelihood of the local population perceiving the humanitarian organisation exclusively as an external entity, establishing a top-down relationship. For instance, an interviewee underlined that in Somalia most humanitarian organisations have “completely lost their neutrality” due to the total reliance on local PSCs, which are strictly connected to the local political system.[5]

Relevantly, security sector actors may have an interest in maintaining the system as it is. The security set-up, composed of security guards, armoured vehicles, security specialists and so forth, is a massive economic industry which is easier to build than to dismantle. It should be taken into consideration how from the provision of security services, especially in very unstable contexts, the flow of cash is enormous and many actors may be legally and illegally benefitting by the categorization of a location as insecure even when it is not the case anymore, therefore perpetuating even further the militarization of the humanitarian space. 

This aspect reflects the dilemma for which the necessity of better security and protection of aid workers have various and at times contrasting interests. These processes can, in some cases, bring an increase in the militarization of the humanitarian space – even when it is not necessary – consequently increasing the perception of insecurity by all actors involved. Hence, the perpetuation of the militarization of humanitarian aid, blurring the line between humanitarian and military action. This, again, could lead to the perception that humanitarian actors are aligned with political or military objectives, impacting the principles of independence and neutrality, and potentially jeopardising the ability of humanitarian organisations to access affected populations. 

 Other risks for humanitarian organisations contracting PSCs include a lack of accountability, a potential lack of understanding of humanitarian principles by PSCs, trust issues between the security provider and the organisation, and the risk of the latter to being exploited or instrumentalized by the former. These factors can all impact the work of humanitarian organisations; however, perception seems to be central in both the securitization of the humanitarian space, which can be further exacerbated by the presence of PSCs, and the impact that their use has on humanitarian principles.

Conclusion: Managing a fragile balance between security and humanitarian principles

The presence of PSCs in the humanitarian space, connected to other elements such as risk-averse policies, high walls, barbed wire, CCTV cameras, and armoured vehicles, increases the disconnection between humanitarian workers and aid recipients. In turn, the economic dimension of the private security sector can create a vicious cycle in the security set-up, where insecurity is central to keeping the system going. This, depending on the context, may have significant consequences on how humanitarian organisations are perceived by local actors. This, in turn, can heavily impact their capacity to deliver aid in accordance with the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence.

Aid organisations should strengthen their internal reflection on the positive and negative consequences of hiring PSCs to mitigate the negative impact of their presence in the humanitarian space. Here it is necessary to be systematic in understanding and measuring the impact of PSCs contracted by humanitarian organisations on humanitarian action and local communities. This, in turn, emphasises the importance of conducting local acceptance and perception surveys. Even more importantly, aid organisations should critically and consistently evaluate whether or not to engage PSCs in the first instance. Clear communication and grounding humanitarian operations in local acceptance and community-led projects is also pivotal to maintain the perception of neutrality and independence as an actor in the field.

Looking at a broader set of recommendations, also identified in the previously cited ICoCA-GISF report, national and international NGOs should hire PSCs that work at the best levels of professionalism and improved due diligence practices are paramount in addressing these complex challenges. Contracting procedures should be enhanced to scrutinise the affiliations and track records of security providers. This would be intended to promote alignment with humanitarian principles, as well as identify any existing relations between a certain security provider and the community where the organisation operates. Moreover, equitable wages above minimum standards should be the norm–reflecting respect for human rights–and rigorous human rights due diligence processes must be integral to any security arrangement.[6]  Lastly, increasing budget allocations for security is essential, not only to enhance service quality but also to minimise the potential for negative externalities.  Other recommendations may encompass training security personnel on human rights and IHL, ensuring their comprehension of the humanitarian mission, and implementing rigorous monitoring of their conduct alongside establishing effective complaints and grievance mechanisms.

Humanitarians cannot afford to be put further at risk by misperception. The time to act is now, ensuring that security measures align with humanitarian values and objectives and do not impact the capacity to reach all those in need.



[1] As an additional source, the Author supplements this research with insights obtained from the session titled “Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs): Impact, Risks and Benefits to Humanitarian Action” held during the 2023 Humanitarian Partnerships and Networks Week (HPNW) in Geneva, Switzerland.

[2] In 2021 a total of 461 humanitarian workers found themselves under attack, with 141 killed and 117 kidnapped.

[3] See, for instance, Fast, L., 2015. Securitization and Threats to Humanitarian Workers, in: The Routledge Companion to Humanitarian Action. Routledge; Fast, L., 2014. Aid in Danger: The Perils and Promise of Humanitarianism. Univ of Pennsylvania Pr, Philadelphia; Neuman, M., Weissman, F. (Eds.), 2016. Saving Lives and Staying Alive: The Professionalization of Humanitarian Security, 1st edition. ed. Hurst, London; for a definition of the term securitization see Fast, L., 2020. Securitization, in: Humanitarianism: Keywords. Brill, pp. 191–192.

[4] See Williamson, J., 2021. Aid agency security is a disaster waiting to happen. The New Humanitarian.

[5] See, for instance, Norman, J., 2020. Private Military and Security Companies and the Political Marketplace in Mogadishu (Research Memo). Conflict Research Programme (The London School of Economics and Political Science).

[6] To explore the topic of how poor working conditions in the private security sector undermine human rights compliance see ICoCA’s report “When the Abused Becomes the Abuser” published in 2023.



The views and opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the stance of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA).