Aid workers under fire

30 October 2009
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On Wednesday, a bomb rocked a UN guesthouse in Kabul, killing at least five people. Last week,  a man working with a UNHCR partner was killed in an ambush on his vehicle in eastern Chad.  Another aid worker was kidnapped in Sudan’s volatile Darfur only days after two aid workers – held captive for more than 100 days – were released. Beyond their sheer human tragedy, these incidents highlight an alarming trend: attacks against aid workers have increased sharply in the last few years.

The attacks in the last two weeks are not exceptional; they represent rising violence against aid workers. Recent research by the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI found that Afghanistan, Darfur and Chad are among the five most dangerous places for aid workers. In fact, three countries – Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia – accounted for more than 60% of violent incidents against aid workers between 2006 and 2008. Kidnappings tripled in the past three years, and while no aid workers had been killed in suicide bombings before 2003, several have now been killed by such attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008, the mortality rate of international aid workers exceeded that of UN peacekeeping troops.  These disturbing facts raise two basic questions. First, why are aid workers targeted? Second, what can be done to prevent such violence?

These questions go to the heart of providing assistance in insecure contexts, particularly for humanitarian agencies that operate in the most politically charged and violent environments.  Aid workers are attacked for a number of different reasons. While some may be the targets of thieves, in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, the motives for attacks are increasingly political: to undermine stability and authority, discourage the presence of humanitarian actors and send a violent message that aid agencies are seen as part of a Western agenda. Politically motivated attacks on aid workers are on the rise because providing assistance is often seen as a political act, whether aid agencies want it to be or not.  We can debate who is to blame for this – armed troops providing assistance are often cited as culprits – but there is little disagreement on the impact. The delivery of assistance, meant to reach those who need it most, becomes restricted to areas where it can be delivered with some margin of security.

Aid agencies face hard choices when it comes to protecting their staff and delivering assistance.  In the most extreme cases, the two are mutually exclusive. Agencies often rely on ‘acceptance’ strategies – essentially cultivating relationships with local actors to minimise the chances of being targeted. However, these strategies are risky and often ineffective in settings plagued by lawlessness and banditry.  Adhering to humanitarian principles like neutrality and independence should be part of a principled humanitarian response. But these principles are not consistently applied, and principles alone cannot guarantee security, particularly in environments where the very act of providing assistance is viewed by armed groups as supporting the institutions against which they are fighting. In some cases, aid agencies take more direct measures to protect themselves, such as hiring armed guards. Not only is this a controversial approach, and one that tends to undermine local acceptance, but it has evident limitations. It is difficult to imagine any strategy that could have prevented the well-armed and coordinated attack on the UN guesthouse in Kabul.

So where does this leave us, other than with hard choices and heart-breaking headlines? In areas where risks can be managed, it means finding context-specific security strategies to handle the different threats facing aid workers, including national staff who continue to operate in areas where international staff do not.  In the most dangerous and politically charged contexts, the choices are indeed the hardest: to stay, to go, to scale-back assistance. The security landscape in these extreme environments is increasingly hostile for aid workers, where their principles and security strategies are pitted against bandits, guns and suicide bombers.  The ultimate tragedy is that the cost of keeping aid workers safe may be the well-being or even the survival of those who rely on their assistance. Too often, aid workers and their agencies are having to decide whether the stakes are too high.