ESRC-DfID Joint-Scheme Funded project

Achieving Policy Coherence in Challenging Environments:

Risk Management and Aid Culture in Sudan and Afghanistan.

An ESRC/DFID Joint Scheme-funded research by led Prof. Mark Duffield (Global Insecurities Centre, University of Bristol) and Dr. Sarah Collinson (Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute)

October 2010 - January 2013


The past two decades the number and range of aid agencies working in conflict-affected fragile states has increased. Encouraged by donor governments seeking comprehensive solutions, the aid system is now engaged in ambitious programmes of social and political transformation that encompass recovery and reconstruction, political stabilisation, peace-building, state-building, humanitarian relief and development.

While usually taking place in so-called post-conflict situations, aid agencies working in such programmes often experience continuing violence and insecurity.  Indeed, it is now widely held that aid work is more dangerous than in the past.  While security measures have increased, including the growth of field-security training, the rise to prominence of the security officer and recourse to heightened physical security measures, including fortified aid compounds and restrictive travel protocols, there is little research on the implications of this securitization including its impact on achieving ambitious policy goals.

Project aim and geographical focus

Focusing on South Sudan and Afghanistan, this research investigated how perceptions of threat and actual risk-management practices by UN agencies and international NGOs challenge their ability to achieve key programme aims in fragile states. 

Research questions

The main questions that have guided this work include:

• Where comprehensive programming is the goal, what are the implications of enhanced risk-management among UN agencies and international NGOs? How does risk-management affect the prioritisation, coverage and effectiveness of agency's programmes on the ground, including relations with beneficiary groups?

• How is risk understood, negotiated and managed between international agencies and national actors, private security companies, and the military, and how does it affect inter-agency coordination?

Methodology & timeframe

The project was jointly managed by Prof Mark Duffield of the Global Insecurities Centre (GIC), University of Bristol and Dr Sarah Collinson from the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG), Overseas Development Institute (ODI).  The South Sudan in-country research was led by Dr. Carol Berger and for Afghanistan, Dr Karl Sandstrom.  In South Sudan, Diana Felix da Costa also assisted.  The research into community perceptions of the aid system was supported by local partners.  In South Sudan, this was the Small and Medium Entrepreneurship Capacity Building Consult (SMECOSS) and Afghanistan, the Peace Training and Research Organisation (PTRO).

During the course of this research, numerous in-depth and semi-structured interviews, together with extensive participant observation, among UN agencies, donor representatives, international NGOs, local NGOs and security contractors have been completed.  In both South Sudan and Afghanistan, local partners have completed multisite survey work on local attitudes towards aid and aid workers. 

It is clear that perceptions of insecurity shape behaviour as much, if not more, than actual events.  To a large extent, these perceptions are being shaped by the security sector itself.  The turn to increasing risk-management, moreover, is throwing new light on the inequalities between national and international aid workers.  The overwhelming majority of aid workers are recruited locally.  A growing concern with security is also exposing the aid system, not in terms of its policy aims, but the material, spatial and cultural effects of the system as a whole, including its fragmentation and increasing bunkerisation.  For local communities, international aid is synonymous with the gated-compounds, secure transport corridors and privileged life-styles that combine to form aid’s proliferating Green Zones.        

Outputs and impact

Existing research on the growing risk to aid workers has tended to focus on external causes; for example, the breakdown of law and order or, alternatively, the politicisation of aid.  This approach tends to ignore those factors that are internal to the system itself and the conscious choices and calculations being made by donors, aid agencies and aid workers.  In other words, existing research focuses on issues that aid agencies, other than ramp-up security, can do little about while ignoring those that they can.  

An International Reference Group representing key agency and policy interests was established as a platform for feedback and discussion.  Besides journal articles and conference presentations, other outputs include a synthesis Policy Review published and disseminated through the ODI network, and an interactive Workshop Framework, which was piloted in Afghanistan, and is designed to help agencies explore the issue of risk and security.   


Sarah Collinson, Mark Duffield, et al, Paradoxes of Presence: Risk Management and Aid Culture in Challenging Environments, 2013 (PDF, 1,317kB)

Project Overview

Working in Challenging Environments (Sept 2012) (PDF, 124kB)

End of Fieldwork Reports

1)  End of Fieldwork Report – South Sudan by Carol Berger (PDF, 213kB)

2)  End of Fieldwork Report – Afghanistan by Karl Sandstrom (PDF, 342kB) 

Trip Reports

1)  Kabul Report (Nov 2011) by Mark Duffield (PDF, 49kB)

2)  Juba Report (Aug 2011) by Mark Duffield (PDF, 52kB)

Field Report South Sudan

Working in Challenging Environments: Risk Management and Aid Culture in South Sudan by Diana Felix da Costa (PDF, 2,101kB)

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