Sharing experiences: How can we improve the safety of community organizations?

date Published 07/03/2024

Interview with Ismaël CISSÉ, President of OSC, on the impact of safety plans in an environment marked by discrimination.

Ismaël CISSÉ is president of a community-based HIV organization in Burkina Faso. In March 2022, he was one of the first community players to take part in the "Training and tool adaptation" workshop organized by CSIH-WCA. He looks back at the importance of safety in a community environment still marked by discrimination and stigmatization, and at the challenges, but also the progress that has improved the well-being of key populations and the effectiveness of programs dedicated to them. 

CSIH-WCA: Safety is a fundamental issue for community organizations. However, field workers and beneficiaries are still encountering problems. What mechanisms can an organization put in place to protect itself and its beneficiaries? 

Ismaël CISSÉ: As far as our organization is concerned, firstly we drew up safety plans for the staff who work there and, secondly, for the players according to their profile. We also tried to list all the activities at risk, and drew up safety plans for each activity. Of course, if this plan remains in a drawer in the organization, it's useless, so we made it operational by doing two things: firstly, appointing a safety manager; and secondly, identifying the required capacities that we didn't have to implement them. In our case, this mainly involved increasing the height of the fence and installing a security system with barbed wire, which we electrified. We also installed an alarm and surveillance cameras that we can control remotely. And I have to say that since then, we haven't had any further intrusions. 

CSIH-WCA: Where do you start when drawing up your safety plan? 

Ismaël CISSÉ: You know, you implement activities during which the players are verbally assaulted. Most of the time, organizations sit back and don't have a safety plan. They wait for violence to occur before reacting. There is no prevention mechanism. So we use a tool we call " security incident logs ". It enables us to document all incidents and analyze them on a regular basis. If, for example, a father educator who goes to a hot spot to do his community work has been assaulted, we try to see if there has already been the same type of assault in another location. We cross-check the information and try to come up with appropriate solutions. This enables us to anticipate possible future attacks. This could mean deploying them in pairs, or doing some advocacy work before coming back to intervene, or even abandoning the site. 

There's also the self-assessment strategy checklist provided by CSIH-WCA. This tool enables us to give scores and implement gaps in terms of strategy, documents and everything else we can think of that relates to safety and security. 

CSIH-WCA: You were one of the first people CSIH-WCA trained in safety issues. Can you tell us about the impact of this training? 

Ismaël CISSÉ: Safety issues were a burden we couldn't get rid of. Since the training, at association level, we have drawn up safety plans collectively, with the beneficiaries. Once we had completed the task of appropriating the tools internally, we also strengthened our sister structures in Ouagadougou. We equipped them with the various tools. Along the way, a major NGO in the country, with branches in several provinces, asked me to help them draw up their safety and security plan. Initially, the aim was to train them in the various tools and to enable each branch coordinator to go back to his or her structure and, together with the people involved, draw up safety and security plans to be sent back to us.

CSIH-WCA: What are the challenges of sharing knowledge and tools between community organizations?

Ismaël CISSÉ: The aim is to reduce the vulnerability of organizations by increasing their capacity to deal with intentional violence. This means empowering them to draw up their own safety plan to guarantee the success and performance of the various programs, taking into account the well-being of beneficiaries and field workers. In our case, the plan has been drawn up and implemented, and we update it regularly. And I have to say that when we had our first burglaries, when the police arrived and we told them "this is what we want to do", they said it was a very good initiative. As we live in a country where insecurity is on the increase, not least because of terrorism, they even advise organizations to be able to set up this kind of thing. 

CSIH-WCA: Have you noticed an improvement in your customers' sense of security? Does everyone feel more comfortable overall? 

Ismaël CISSÉ: Yes, it's a very general observation. The surveillance cameras we've installed enable us to see what's going on outside. We know when someone is trying to break in. And there's an alarm too. It's true that at the beginning, we had some minor problems with certain beneficiaries who were afraid, but we explained to them that it was for security and safety purposes. So now they're reassured. The workers are also more reassured, and I myself am even more reassured, because even if I'm traveling, I can see the images from my phone. It's really reassuring, mental health has improved, and so has well-being. 

I know that the other organization with us is in the process of setting up such a system too. But the problem is that these systems are expensive, and we hadn't budgeted for them. We had to try and find our own resources to implement this plan. That was the main difficulty we encountered. 

CSIH-WCA: Do you think the Global Fund should take these considerations into account in the funding it provides? 

Ismaël CISSÉ: Absolutely. I'll take the case of Burkina Faso: it's true that we've encountered a few difficulties with the grant, but it's an activity that we've included and we've put a lot of activities linked to it in the grant. We don't know whether it will go through or not, but it would be a good start to have the plans. We'll see how to make them operational and, in the future, we'll see who the partners are who can position themselves in relation to this. The Global Fund, PEPFAR, other partners and other donors really need to focus on safety and security. In the Global Fund's guidelines, I think I saw a point on safety and security... It would be a pity if the investments made were compromised by a lack of security for stakeholders.