In 2011, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) published a landmark study, To Stay and Deliver, which documented practices of humanitarian organizations delivering aid — particularly in highly insecure environments.  The report’s main objective was to propel a shift from humanitarian organizations asking “when do we have to leave” a conflict area to “how do we stay” for those who need us the most.

Since the 2011 publication, new conflicts have emerged while others have persisted, which prompted the commission of an independent follow-up study, Presence and Proximity – To Stay and Deliver, Five Years On, by OCHA, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), and the Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA). Case studies and online surveys inform the report and offer insight into how the perspectives of humanitarian actors on operational conditions, security management strategies, remote management, and other issues have changed since 2011.

The authors generally conclude that while it is evident that the “key messages of the 2011 study resonate with and have been internalized by a wide range of humanitarian actors”, many challenges still persist and some objectives have not been entirely met. Humanitarians demonstrate a strong desire to stay and deliver amid insecurity and, since the 2011 publication, there has been a 40 percent increase in humanitarian funding, which has helped humanitarian actors maintain substantial field presence in some highly insecure contexts.

In addition, since the first report,greater attention to humanitarian security has catalyzed the creation of a number of policy frameworks, working groups, and databases among UN agencies, NGOs, and multi-stakeholder platforms.

Despite this progress, the second report emphasizes that “areas with the greatest needs still tend to see the most limited humanitarian presence”. In parts of Afghanistan, as well as Yemen and Syria, for example, the majority of humanitarian actors focus their activities on relatively safe areas while neglecting some of the more insecure locations. The study found that many humanitarian organizations still approach key decisions based on “relatively weak analyses and vague perceptions rooted in media coverage of particular crises”. In cases where organizations declined to stay or were reluctant to return, interviewees attributed inflated perceptions of risk to their respective headquarters’ limited contextual awareness. The report points out that it is important that humanitarian organizations trust and empower their personnel on the ground.

While there has been much greater attention paid to humanitarian security, these efforts have largely benefited international rather than local actors, and the latter experience a greater proportion of aid worker security incidents. Since the first report, a number of humanitarian actors have developed and refined their means of remote programming — maintaining presence in conflict areas by transferring risk onto local partners. Remote approaches have increasingly become a default option for many organizations rather than a last resort or temporary measure. Despite its growing prevalence, remote approaches are seen as significantly less effective than direct humanitarian programming and dangerous for local partners.  The report strongly advises that humanitarian organizations take responsibility not only for the safety and security of their own staff but also that of their local partners.

The report’s recommendations are addressed to UN agencies, national NGOs, INGOs, donors, and multistakeholder bodies. The authors maintain that actors must develop more structured approaches to remote programming and subcontracting practices should be subject to more robust oversight. All stakeholders should renew attention to the safety and security of local and national actors. Experienced and empowered leadership is crucial to the continuous communication between organization headquarters and on-the-field personnel. Lastly, the report maintains that multi-stakeholder collaboration is critical to maintaining presence and proximity as priorities in even the most volatile of areas.

Read the full report.