Module 6.2 – Key Factors to Consider in Vulnerability Assessment

Many factors affect vulnerability. We have identified eight factors of particular importance.

The basic factors listed below all impact your vulnerability, but their specific applicability to your situation will vary depending on your specific organization and the threats (as well as the underlying motivation for those threats) you are facing. Some of the factors affect your vulnerability in all situations, such as the location of your staff and property. Other factors have an impact only in certain types of situations; the value of your property, for example, matters when faced with a crime/banditry threat, but not with an indirect one (e.g., getting caught in the crossfire, artillery barrage, or mined areas). The eight factors considered here are:

  1. Location
  2. Exposure of staff and property
  3. Value of property
  4. Adoption of appropriate safety measures
  5. Staff compliance with safety measures
  6. Staff interpersonal skills
  7. Program impacts
  8. Image of the organization


Your vulnerability may differ from that of other organizations due to the specific locations of your team and property/base location. Questions to ask when considering the vulnerability of your location include the following:

  • Are you in a specific location (province, city, or district) that is safer or more dangerous than other comparable organizations?
  • Are you in a location that is remote, difficult to reach and/or poorly serviced by critical response needs (law enforcement and fire response, emergency medical response and hospitals, etc)? Remember that the ability to respond effectively to a threat (or lack of it) will play a large part in your assessment of how potentially harmful or damaging that threat is to you.
  • Are belligerents, criminals or other actors able to move easily and quickly from dangerous areas into safer ones (e.g., roaming gangs or bandits, bombing raids)?
  • Is there a likelihood of the threat situation changing quickly, making relatively safe locations more dangerous on short-notice or without warning?

Exposure of staff and property

Two organizations in the same location may face significantly different levels of exposure due to:

  • The number of staff and amount of valuable property – an organization with 100 staff members in a dangerous location has greater exposure than one with 10 employees in the same place.
  • The degree to which activities require staff members to travel in particularly high-risk areas – For example, traveling to or through remote field areas on assessments and or land surveys for large Oil and Gas companies. The amount of time staff and property are in vehicles or convoys, which tend to be more vulnerable than fixed sites, should be considered. Exposure explains why an organization that frequently sends staff to the “deep field” probably has greater vulnerability than one that works only in the capital city, although the two might be housed in the same office building (i.e., their location is the same).
  • Exposure can also be influenced greatly by the adoption of appropriate security measures and compliance with those security measures – These are discussed as separate vulnerability factors below. This is another example of where the elements of SRA are inter-related and cannot be considered in isolation.

Value of property

Organisations with valuable property may present attractive targets to criminals. While having valuable property is not a “weakness” per se, it may increase the likelihood of being selected as a target, and is therefore worth consideration in your vulnerability assessment.

International organizations usually have valuable property—cash, equipment, vehicles, personal property etc. In any situation, these items are a potential target of criminals. Remember also that value is relative. Even though some items or equipment may seem of low value to you, they may have a high perceived value to those wanting to take them, especially if they will be used for other purposes; for example:

  • In a conflict zone belligerents may target property to support their military efforts.
  • Some property has military value (e.g., four-wheel drive vehicles, radios, fuel).
  • Stolen cash can be used to purchase military equipment and supplies (e.g., weapons, ammunition, vehicles, fuel, radios, food).
  • Some property can be sold or bartered (e.g., four-wheel drive vehicles, radios, medicine, valuable foodstuffs).

Adoption of appropriate security measures

  • Organizations that adopt appropriate security measures are usually less vulnerable than those that do not. Appropriate measures include all of the following:
  • Appropriate facilities (starting with selection of the site, its location and quality of construction, and including perimeter walls, barriers and other structures).
  • Appropriate security equipment (alarms, lighting, shatter-resistant film, radios, vehicles, ballistic jackets and helmets, first-aid kits, fire extinguishers, etc.).
  • Appropriate guards (number, equipment and training).
  • Appropriate protocols and procedures (radio checks, pre-mission preparations, reporting of security information, etc.).
  • Appropriate security plans and planning, including procedures, contingency plans, and supporting information (contact numbers for staff and emergency responders, etc.).
  • Appropriate training for staff, (including security briefing upon arrival and regular situational updates thereafter, and understanding of the security plan)
  • SRA updated regularly; results used to update plans and shared with staff as appropriate.

module 8 – Risk Reduction Measures, and module 9 – Security Plans and Planning, will discuss these areas more fully.

Staff compliance with security measures

Even if your organisation adopts the appropriate security measures, actual vulnerability is still dependent upon whether the staff consistently complies with them. Organizations usually adopt a wide variety of measures, from broad policies (such as prohibiting soldiers or armed persons to ride in vehicles) to minute procedures (how to call for help using a radio). Assuming these measures are appropriate, your organization is more vulnerable than others if your staff members do not comply with the measures we previously covered.

Key factors for consideration include the following:

  • Are security measures in place made clear to all, in briefings and in writing? Is the Security Plan (or appropriate parts of it) disseminated to all staff? Are new employees briefed and encouraged to review it?
  • Do staff members understand use of security-related equipment (e.g., radios, GPS, satellite telephones, and fire extinguishers)?
  • Do staff members comply with security instructions (e.g., travel clearance procedures, radio checks, curfews, and no-go areas)? What happens in cases of non-compliance?
  • Is implementation of the security plan supported (or undermined) by other aspects of your organization such as orientation, education, training, equipment, funds, time, and organizational culture (e.g., risk-taking propensity)?

Staff interpersonal skills

The interpersonal skills of your staff can affect your vulnerability by helping you avoid incidents and mitigate their impact if they occur. Such skills affect security in important ways:

  • Interpersonal skills may determine whether a community is likely to share information and otherwise provide help and advice that can help plan for and avoid security incidents before they occur.
  • Interpersonal skills can mitigate the impact of incidents by allowing you to react appropriately. When confronted with an incident (e.g., roadblock, angry mob), your behaviour can either escalate the incident or reduce it, depending in part on your skills in dealing with a stressful situation and negotiating effectively.
  • Skills and behaviour within the team itself can be critical in preventing or dealing with security incidents. Sharing information appropriately, and ensuring staff acceptance of security measures will, in many cases, mitigate the impact of incidents through mutual support of team members.

Program impacts

The impact of your programs on other actors in your environment can have an effect on your safety, both positively and negatively. Being aware of how your activities affect others helps you better understand your vulnerability.

Programs may create or increase the likelihood of threats by:

  • Requiring staff to stay or travel in high-risk areas.
  • Creating obvious temptations for bandits or criminals.
  • Benefiting, or being perceived to benefit, some groups and not others.
  • Giving the perception that benefits are spread unevenly.
  • Creating competition for employment opportunities.
  • Challenging customs, traditions or beliefs.
  • Providing inadequate information which can lead to misunderstandings and misperceptions. Some ways in which programs can reduce likelihood of threats include:
  • Programs may reduce tensions in the community by providing lifesaving assistance.
  • Programs may support long-term peace, stability and development of the region (Oil and Gas work, aid operations etc)
  • Programs may enhance the credibility, image and acceptance of your organization.

For example: Experience has shown that for humanitarian and development workers in insecure areas, the impact of programs is of particular importance in assessing an organisation’s vulnerability and ultimately risk. For this reason, in Module 7 – Program Assessment, we will take a deeper look at the relationship between these two factors, and explore what program assessment means in the SRA context.

Image of the organization

Finally, your vulnerability is partially dependent on the image of your organization within the local community. Every organisation has a public image—the perception of the local population, authorities, and belligerents toward your staff and programs. What you say and do, how you appear, and the scope and impact of your programs influences the opinions of the local population.

Will they accept your presence and roles, or be resentful toward you?

While image may not be the sole cause of significant security incidents, acceptance or resentment of your staff and programs can influence security in these important ways:

  • It increases or decreases the predisposition of criminals and belligerents to target you.
  • It makes the local population more or less likely to help ensure that you do not face security incidents (e.g., extending societal constraints on criminal activities to you, forewarning you of danger).
  • It makes the local population more or less likely to help you when you are faced with security incidents (e.g., helping you recover stolen property).

Image problems are often founded on the mistaken belief that people understand the objectives of your operations. Often verbal messages are less important than non-verbal ones that an agency may be unaware it is sending. To help understand whether you are vulnerable because of image problems, consider the following:

Appearance and behaviour – Does your staff’s appearance and behaviour lead people to believe the staff members are wealthy? Morally corrupt? Do your discussions with officials and others lead people to conclude you are naive and ignorant of the history and situation, and thus easily manipulated?

Staff composition – Is your staff comprised of an appropriate mix of national, ethnic, political, religious, class, rural-urban, and gender groups—in both numbers and seniority—from the perspective of being respected and seen as impartial?

Programs – Are your programs perceived as helping one particular ethnic group or belligerent party, aiding only some sectors of society (e.g., assisting refugees but not the local population or internally displaced persons), changing the ways in which groups have access to resources (e.g., supporting education only for girls), or altering power structures (e.g., using merchants and suppliers aligned with one group)? The issue of how your programs are perceived is different from whether they actually have an impact on the conflict.

Headquarters – Does the location of your headquarters portray implicit support for one side in a conflict, or association with some agencies?

History – Do people misinterpret repeated assessments as broken promises? Did they resent your withdrawing from the area when the security situation worsened in the past?

Remember that history, and often collective memories, are long; factors predating your organisation’s arrival, such as geopolitical rivalries and former colonial legacies can impact how your agency is perceived.

Another way of assessing vulnerability due to image problems is to look for evidence of how you are portrayed in the press or local discussions—as agents of western imperialism, intelligence agents, cultural imperialists, proselytizers, enemy sympathizers, or smugglers. Remember, however, that trying to change your organization’s image may have only a limited effect on your vulnerability. Despite your best efforts, you may be unable to differentiate your staff and programs from other organizations; the local population or a certain group may simply view all similar organizations as the same.

  • Belligerents may be targeting a particular population which your agency is seeking to aid, or trying to deprive it of assistance, in which case you may become a target despite all efforts to increase your image.
  • Belligerents may be seeking to discredit the government and create an appearance of inefficiency and disorder, in which case targeting your agency may be expedient regardless of your image.