Regardless of how well-conceived and implemented, risk management cannot eliminate risk; “it only reduces the likelihood of its occurrence, and mitigates against the potential consequences,” explains a new guidance note from Humanitarian Outcomes and InterAction, Residual Risk Acceptance: An Advocacy Guidance Note.

In addition, the concept of program criticality, based on the severity of the need, is not normally formally measured and factored into most NGOs’ risk management frameworks, the note states. Both donors and governing bodies should acknowledge residual risk in light of the criticality of the humanitarian response without disincentivizing humanitarian action. Because donors are often unwilling to acknowledge or accept residual risk, they end up shifting their own risks to NGOs.

Advocacy around residual risk acceptance should be focused on reaching a mutual understanding of acceptable residual risks and responsibility “resulting in binding commitments on ‘risk sharing’,” the note explains. Objectives may vary, but can include a written letter of agreement or memorandum of understanding, or new national legislation that incorporates the risk sharing commitment. To achieve these goals, NGOs must demonstrate their commitment to transparency and rigor in reducing residual risk. As part of the advocacy strategy, NGOs may want to undertake actor mapping, in which all institutions and individuals with key roles on the issue are ranked according to the power they posses to effect change. The note includes sample matrices and maps.

Messaging is always a key component of advocacy. The note recommends presenting the issue with clear, brief language but also homing in on mutual interests. In doing so, risk sharing can be framed as a “win-win” outcome. It is also useful, the note adds, for NGOs to overcome the natural tendency to project an image of being in complete control. “This lack of candor about the challenges they face can come back to bite them when risks are realized,” the note states. The truth is that NGOs engage in “extremely difficult work in highly dangerous environments” and struggle to “manage risks while assisting people in need to the best of their ability.”

Finally, the note reminds readers that progress in advocacy tends to be “dynamic and iterative” rather than linear. Evaluation and learning should be ongoing and used to inform next steps.

The guidance note can be found here.