A picture from Afghanistan sticks in my mind: a development team dressed in bullet-resistant vests. Has this what people-centred development has come to?

The same military minds that believe they can embark on development with a uniform are perverting development efforts in their ‘civilian’ capacities as security officers at High Commissions and Embassies. Encapsulated in their comfortable offices and reluctant to visit field sites because of perceived or real danger, security officers of many low budget western diplomatic missions in Pakistan are having to rely on the security officials of the UN or on better financed missions, such as the US and UK which, inherently, have their own biased views of who is in danger, where and why. Alternatively, as highlighted by the regular security reports of certain diplomatic missions, advisories are post traumatic—event reminders for vigilance and decrees on movement restrictions—not fact based pre-event, rationalised instructions. Moreover, the bases of such advisories are built on publicly available media reports, not firsthand information. Virtually none of these advisories are ever complemented with cogent analysis and/or suggestions for alternatives.

The ultra conservative, paranoid security personnel, many of them being from a military background and deficient in sociocultural analysis, feel compelled to frequently find reason for danger in order to justify their positions. Naturally, our western litigious predilection does not help either; and since they are afraid of criticism, they can’t say “yes, go do your work with caution”, with complete confidence. They are fearful of damaging their reputation and lean so much to the side of caution that their decisions—actually indecisions—completely dilute development efforts.

There are agencies and projects which purposely do not employ former military, paramilitary or police personnel as security advisors for the preceding reasons; additionally, there is often the fear by agencies that such security advisors may, in fact, endanger the project by providing to their contacts information which could be misused and even artificially cause incidents to “prove” that an advisory was accurate.

So what are the consequences of using security advisors? On the advice of such security personnel, many western organizations decide to retreat their managers and other essential personnel (usually the expats) to locations considered safer, such as the capitol, leaving domestic staff looking after the project. This brings up two ethical issues: a) domestic staff, considered by default expendable in the face of danger, can develop an aversion to expats provided with such special treatment; b) the previous point notwithstanding, efforts at remote management more often than not result in insufficient accountability and questionable progress—at the very least.

Appropriate alternative approaches to security decisions shall be covered in the next blog.