This webinar, organized by the International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection, discussed risk management in humanitarian operations. The talk began with Jeremy Rempel who is the Head of Humanitarian Finance at International Council of Voluntary Agencies, ICVA. Mr. Rempel emphasized that humanitarian work is inherently high risk, since it involves work in difficult locations with some of the most vulnerable populations. As a result, humanitarians must recognize the magnitude of risk that is present in their work, and they must also be able to appropriately manage risk on a day to day basis. Mr. Rempel discussed the differences between risk appetite, i.e. the amount and type of risk an organization is prepared to pursue, and risk tolerance, which denotes the technical ability to withstand the undertaken risk. According to Mr. Rempel, donors tend to have high risk tolerance compared to their risk appetite, whereas partners and NGOs usually have a higher risk appetite than their risk tolerance permits. In effect, the partners’ and NGOs’ risk management is often inefficient and they end up vastly unprepared for the so-called ‘black swan’ events. 

The floor was then taken by Oscar Kapur Keeble, a Senior Enterprise Risk Management Officer at UNHCR, who elaborated on risk appetite further. In 2017, some very bad risk events materialized in UNHCR; among the most serious ones was a large scale resettlement exploitation scheme in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya where some UNHCR staff members in coordination with the local criminal network were exploiting refugees for money in exchange for services that the refugees were unconditionally entitled to. This event raised a number of serious questions amongst the UN donors and stakeholders as to whether these risks were sufficiently anticipated by UNHCR and whether appropriate preventive measures had been set up. In response to this and some other negative news within the organization, the High Commissioner announced a new commitment to risk management, the so-called risk management 2.0. This new framework enforces an ongoing tracking and reporting of risk levels in humanitarian programs. The risk management 2.0 has also extended the UNHCR risk management team by creating a network of dedicated senior risk advisors in the highest risk operations and also in the regional Bureaus. In effect, UNHCR now incorporates a senior risk management body who decides on what proportion of core relief items can be sacrificed to ensure that the remaining supplies reach remote regions during humanitarian crises, for example now in Syria or Yemen. 

The zoom microphone was then passed on to Robert Nelson, the director and enterprise risk manager at World Vision. His speech built on what was mentioned by Mr. Keeble, mainly that the expected risk margin of humanitarian organizations must primarily be realistic. Organizations tend to be aspirational and say that they have zero tolerance and zero appetite for risk and fraud but setting the tolerance boundary too low would prevent many successful projects from being executed. In addition, Mr. Nelson also emphasized that reflective risk management at the local level is just as important as a strong internal risk management team in the organization’s headquarters. The question of localization was also discussed during the final part of the discussion led again by Mr. Rempel from ICVA. Mr. Rempel suggested that a large proportion of humanitarian risk is transferred from NGOs down the chain towards the local and national partners. It is, therefore, important to ensure that these local actors are supported and equipped to handle the risk involved in operations. 

Mr. Rempel concluded the webinar by emphasizing trust between donors and the involved NGOs and partners. He suggested that if there is a strong trust between these parties, then the donors will be much more willing to provide funding for risky humanitarian projects.