Duty of Care: NGO Considerations

Duty of Care: Context for NGO and International Development Organizations

Traders peddle their wares to the people of Maputo's Avenida Marginal in Mozambique.


Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play a crucial role in addressing social, environmental, and humanitarian issues worldwide. Often, they operate in high-risk environments, where their work is most needed. In these settings, NGOs must prioritize their duty of care to protect employees and minimize organizational liability. This blog post will discuss the importance of duty of care for NGOs, the liability faced by leadership, and notable examples of organizations held accountable for failing to uphold duty of care obligations. We will conclude with a call to action for organizations to learn from best practices and create a more resilient and secure environment for their personnel.

Context for NGOs and International Development Organizations

Duty of care is the legal and moral obligation of an organization to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety and well-being of its employees and consultants. For NGOs operating in international locations, many of which are high-risk environments, duty of care is crucial. It involves not only addressing immediate security threats but also considering factors like health, safety, and employee welfare. Duty of care responsibilities for NGOs can include:

  1. Conducting risk assessments to identify potential hazards in the work environment.

  2. Implementing policies and procedures to mitigate identified risks.

  3. Providing appropriate training for employees to understand and manage risks.

  4. Ensuring access to essential resources, such as medical care and evacuation services.

  5. Offering ongoing support for employees to cope with stress, trauma, or other psychological impacts of working in high-risk environments.

Liability of Leadership

Leadership at the director and executive levels of NGOs bear significant legal and moral responsibility for upholding duty of care standards. Failure to prioritize and enforce duty of care can result in severe consequences, including financial penalties, reputational damage, and legal liability.

In recent years, several organizations have faced charges for not upholding satisfactory duty of care obligations. Directors and board members have been held accountable in the court of law for negligence, leading to employee harm or death. These cases underscore the importance of proactive leadership in addressing duty of care concerns and the potential risks associated with not fulfilling these obligations.

Notable Examples

  1. In 2016, several former directors of the French NGO "Action Contre La Faim" (Action Against Hunger) were charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the 2009 kidnapping and murder of six employees in Afghanistan. The prosecution alleged that the organization had failed to take necessary precautions to protect its employees and that the directors were ultimately responsible for their deaths.

  2. In 2019, a US-based NGO faced a lawsuit for allegedly failing to protect an employee who was sexually assaulted while working on a project in Haiti. The employee claimed that the organization had not provided adequate security measures or training, leading to her traumatic experience. The NGO settled the case out of court, but the incident served as a stark reminder of the importance of duty of care and the potential legal ramifications of not addressing employee safety concerns.

Basic Precautionary Considerations

The above examples highlight the importance of duty of care for NGOs operating in high-risk environments. Organizations must recognize their responsibility to protect employees and minimize liability by proactively addressing potential hazards and implementing policies and procedures to mitigate risk.

To accomplish this, at a minimum NGO and International Development Organizations should observe the following recommendations:

  1. Learn from existing best practices: Research and adopt successful duty of care policies and practices from other organizations operating in similar contexts.

  2. Expert advisory support: Seek out external support from risk management and legal advisory experts to not only identity gaps, but to build a roadmap with the objective of closing gaps in policy, procedure and current practices.

  3. Collaborate with peers: Establish partnerships with other partner organizations to share knowledge, resources, and experiences related to duty of care.

  4. Invest in staff training: Provide comprehensive training programs for employees to build their understanding of risks and empower them to prioritize their safety.

  5. Monitor and evaluate duty of care efforts: Regularly assess and adapt policies and procedures to ensure they remain effective.

Closing Notes

For the last decade plus, Riley Risk has been instrumental in assisting international development organizations in assessing and enhancing their duty of care programs. By working closely with NGOs, Riley Risk develops and successfully implements comprehensive duty of care programs and standards using a proprietary and cost-effective process. This partnership empowers organizations to protect their employees, reduce liability, and create a more resilient operation.

If you believe your organization could benefit from Riley Risk's expertise, don't hesitate to reach out for a no-obligation engagement call. The team at Riley Risk is dedicated to helping NGOs fulfill their duty of care obligations, ensuring a safer and more secure future for all involved. Contact the team here to find out more.