Developing nations offer their own special challenges to the security professional, including:
- issuing weapons to security teams who left school with perhaps four years of education
- assigning life and death tasks to people for whom English is a third or fourth language
- operating in a culture that may or may not share some of your most basic values
- dealing professionally, pragmatically and above all politely, with officials who may be less interested in your safety than the potential for punctuation errors in your permits and visas to generate ‘special purpose’ visa fees
- downloading server patches over a satellite link
- isolation, long supply chains, and potentially being the only native English speaker for hundreds of kilometres
- heat, flies, dysentery, malaria and more.
In the past 30 years, I have managed security operations and conducted security risk assessments on four continents. I have faced all of the above and more but my observation is that just as the laws of physics do not change with geography, so too the principles of good security management are consistent. Three principles that have always worked for me are:
- Security-in-depth is king of the jungle.
- Treat (most) people decently.
- Security professionals want to protect – give them the resources then get out of their way.
Security-in-depth is King of the Jungle Working at Mibango camp, a remote geological exploration camp in the Rift Valley in East Africa, redefined the word ‘remote’ for me. It was at least a two-day hard 4WD trip to do a fuel resupply. To put it another way, it was five days drive (most of which was serious 4WD) to the nearest espresso machine. We lived in and worked with the local community exploring 2,000 square kilometres of forests. You had to be completely self-sufficient and quite regularly I would be one of only two mzungus (Swahilin for ‘white European’) for at least a days hard 4WD.
My official title was ‘Logistics Manager’, in reality it covered everything except geology. Fuel, supplies, human resources, risk, WHS, and security – you name it. I was there with an Australian exploration company that took over operations from a South African mining company. When we arrived, the two acre compound was ringed with razor wire and floodlights. There were four sandbagged gun pits, two underground ‘shelter-in-place’ bunkers, and 32 security officers armed with shotguns and automatic rifles.
At first, I wondered what I had gotten myself into but as I got to know the region my instincts suggested that the threat profile was not what it seemed. You can tell a lot by how the local people live. For example, in a high threat environment, people cluster together in villages for protection. That did not gel with what I was seeing here, however, as the area mostly comprised individual subsistence farms. Our predecessors spoke of armed attacks, bandits and pirates, and the incident reports showed three armed attacks in the past two years, including hostage taking, armed robbery, camp invasions with shots fired, and even an attempted homicide at a roadblock. It all sounded grim but digging a bit deeper, the common thread in all of these was … ‘disgruntled employee’.
Digging even deeper, it transpired that the previous management team had a particular way of treating the locals. Geologists never left camp without an armed escort and it was forbidden for drivers to give lifts to locals. We started giving lifts to the locals, opened our medical clinic for free, stopped sending armed guards with every field trip, and subsidised the local school. Mostly, however, we just started treated people decently. Within four months we had dropped the security team from 32 to just three!
Before we knew it, our security incident reports had also dropped away to rare incidents such as two bandits being seized by a village 20 kilometres away and turned over to the police with their weapons. In the next three years, we had not a single incident of robbery, assault or armed incident. We were still working in the same region of the same country, but effectively our protective security perimeter had expanded from the razor wire of our compound out to about 50 kilometres. And all for much less than the cost of the extra 29 security officers we had sent home.
Treat (Most) People Decently
Theft, extortion, corruption and assault were near daily events at the alluvial tin mine where I managed security and risk on a remote island in the north of the Indonesia. Riots were also a regular occurrence. We had over a million dollars worth of equipment destroyed by fire or theft, and multiple assaults on staff by locals. Following a motor vehicle accident for example, where one of the mine trucks had run over and killed a child in a village, the locals severely beat the driver and burned out his truck, then set fire to the two recovery vehicles that were sent to extricate our driver. Three years later, the village was still a no-go zone and mine operations used a specially constructed bypass road around the village. Many times, I had to make hard decisions and weekly we would arrest thieves in the compound then hand them over to the police. I also had to lead by example at the front of a security team facing rioters throwing bricks and bottles into our compounds.
In this context, you can imagine my thoughts, when awoken at 4.00am one morning to be told that a thief had drowned at one of our mining operations. He was trying to escape from our security teams and attempted to swim across the dam. His friends had escaped and by the time I got there, an angry mob of 500 had forced their way onto the site. As I approached, I could sense that the mood was ugly and we were likely to be looking at another multi-million dollar damages bill.
There was only a moment to make a decision, but weighing it all up, I parked the car and walked over to the group. We talked about our concern for their friend and his family, and I asked them what I could do to help. They said they did not need anything but on leaving I arranged for my security team to bring meals and water to the mob until his body was recovered two days later. I will never know for certain what might have happened if I had just driven away rather than stopping to chat and providing food and water. However, what I do know is that from an initially angry mob, we generated much goodwill and … most of all the riots, theft and general crime in the region dropped dramatically over the months that followed. I had any number of similar instances where simple human decency and listening to the locals’ issues has transformed a volatile situation and set a new benchmark for local relations.
Provide resources then get out of the way!
In few occupations will you find a cohort of people who are prepared to risk their lives for complete strangers. I have worked with security officers and professionals in dozens of countries now, and one near universal truth is that the vast majority are honest and reliable people who share a genuine commitment to protecting other people and property. I first noticed this when on assignment with Austrade in China. I was interviewing security offices at one of our consulates. Everything was through an interpreter, but I quickly noticed that their answers and body language in response to my questions were identical to any other security officer that I had ever worked with. I have since noticed almost exactly the same behaviours, values and concerns in security teams around the world, whether in personnel security, protective security, cyber security or security management.
Many individuals start in security because they need a job, but it is rare to find an experienced security team whose members do not align behind the values of serving and protecting others. Almost universally, their complaint is not with the risks they face but with lack of resources.
Let me give you an example of one chap in particular that will call ‘Bill’. He had been at the one job for 10 years and had been a problem employee for many managers. I tried the usual tactics of a new supervisor by initially telling him how to correct his bad attitude and his performance issues before, eventually, giving him written warnings. Nothing worked. People were convinced, myself included, that Bill simply was not interested in his job. However, when I looked more closely, I realised the reason Bill was not doing his job well was actually because he had never been properly trained in most of his responsibilities and was too proud to admit it.
The team had picked up a new access control system and emergency response functions which he, above all others, found overwhelming. There were no funds for training and some of the equipment was at the end of its useful life. It took some tough months for both of us but I dug up some resources to provide the team and Bill, in particular, with supplementary training. With relatively little cost, but much commitment from me, Bill transformed from the worst employee to one of my best.
Time and time again, when I have found poor performers in security teams, it has been a case of lack of skills or resources. If you ask a security crew to do what they really want to do, they just want to protect people. If you do not give them the right tools and training – and then get out of their way – you can only expect poor outcomes.
Developing nations pose their own range of challenges and can drive a normal person to despair. Equally, however, you will rarely have such an opportunity to make a real difference. If you, as a security professional, share my values of protecting people and their prize assets, then the opportunity to serve in a developing nation is one that you should seize. You will never regret it. Just remember that the three principles outlined in this article are far more important than the 3 G’s of guns, guards and gates.