International NGO Safety Organisation



Function: Country Director
Location: Erbil, Iraq
Nationality: Canadian

Greta is our Country Director in Iraq, and she says the best part of the role is helping NGOs make critical operational decisions through safety and access information she and the team provide.

First, tell us how you came to join INSO as Country Director in Iraq.

I became aware of INSO while working in Iraq for an NGO that did political education. My background is in Canadian politics (I know, the link isn’t immediately apparent), but I ran a programme training women and youth in Iraq who wanted to get involved in the political process but needed some support professionalising their approach. That job required me to travel all around the country. INSO was really helpful in providing area assessments.

INSO’s analysis seemed thoughtful, data-based and enabling where possible. I was really impressed that it provided safety information to support humanitarian or development NGOs to do more, and go further, which is not always the experience I have had with safety briefs.

What are the unique challenges of the Country Director role, what skills do you feel it draws on?

The biggest challenge by far of working for INSO is that we are a humanitarian NGO that is totally different from every other humanitarian NGO – outliers in the very community that we serve.

In Iraq, an ancient and extremely diverse country, we collect information from NGOs, and circulate information to NGOs, about the many different communities they serve. I see our job as enabling NGO staff to do more, while keeping them safer. This is obviously worlds apart from Canadian politics. But I do believe that if you want to serve a community, you need to understand it. That applies in Canada, and it applies in my adopted home of Iraq.

I love that INSO prioritizes data, and objective information drawn from communities, in any analysis. Much of the world only hears about violence when they hear about Iraq, I’m lucky to be a part of a team that can help add context beyond those headlines.

If you had to explain what we do as INSO to a stranger, how would you put it in simple words?

INSO provides information to aid workers to help them make decisions about their safety.

The major difference between us and any other NGO is that we work only for other NGOs. That’s what tends to confuse most people because humanitarian and development workers aren’t usually aid recipients.

We have more than 200 NGO partners in Iraq, each representing 10s if not 100s of aid workers – 90% of them local, to whom we provide free-of-charge safety advice. By optimising safety costs, these NGOs can invest more of their energy and funds on demining, protecting minority communities, training on reducing corruption, rebuilding infrastructure, ensuring displaced people have legal documents, and so on. These are just some examples of what our partners do in Iraq, and we can help them by taking the responsibility of constantly collecting and analysing safety data off their plates.

What are the top three things you’ve learnt since being Country Director?

1. Bad information gets around much faster than accurate information
2. Definitely ask the dumb questions; most people are afraid to and remain dumb as a result
3. Acronyms are a plague on effective communication and IMO should be abolished

What are some examples of the impact of INSO that you’ve heard from partners?

One of the most common things I hear from partners is that their staff chose to go somewhere, or chose to avoid somewhere, because of information they received from INSO. Two examples come to mind.

Demining organizations, due to the nature of their work, tend to have fairly high risk tolerance. A partner that works in an area south of Erbil has an ongoing project there clearing fields of explosive ordinance. Our real-time alerts are useful to these aid workers in determining what routes they can take to the project that day and whether they should make alternate arrangements. Iraq is one of the most contaminated countries in the world, so they don’t want to avoid the area altogether, but armed group presence remains a risk. They’ve told us that they made real-time adjustments to their plans after receiving an alert from INSO.

In another case, staff 0f a certain NGO decided to stay operational because of contextual reporting provided by INSO during protests in Baghdad. Some NGOs were contemplating evacuating their international staff because of the flood of information they were seeing on- and offline. We were able to correct a lot of misinformation, and provide timely updates on the situation, which allowed some partners to choose to hibernate rather than evacuate. In the end, those that remained were able to resume operations far faster and with less disruption to programming.

What motivates you in your work?

Anyone who works at INSO will say that our strength lies in the professionalism of our staff, and that’s obvious from day one. So the best part of being an INSO Country Director is that you can largely take for granted that your team will be excellent.

I hope to be a lifelong learner, and one of the pleasures of working in Iraq is just how much there is to learn here. I’m not surprised at how knowledgeable my Iraqi colleagues are, but I am surprised at how patient and willing they are to share that knowledge with me regularly. Outside of contributing to INSO’s mandate, the opportunities to learn in this job are what I value most.