Violence towards aid workers increasing

Adele Harmer
Adele Harmer
1 July 2013
Comment
Delivering aid in the midst of conflict has always been dangerous and difficult work. Over the last few years, aid agencies have increased attention to the risks their staff and partners face in these contexts, including examining security, fiduciary, reputational and legal risks.

Despite this recent focus, there is a long history of aid organisations adapting their programmes in insecure environments. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as the operational presence of aid organisations in conflict areas increased, aid workers faced a range of threats, including collateral violence, the presence of armed opposition groups, and generalised crime and violence.

More recently however the situation for aid workers has become more challenging. Increasing targeted attacks against aid workers and their operations, and a range of obstacles and conditions created by militaries, governments, and non- state actors, have all hindered the provision ofaid.  Findings from the Aid Worker Security report (2012) show that aid worker casualties have tripled since 2002, reaching over 100 deaths per year. In 2011,308 aid workers were victims of major attacks – the highest yearly number yet recorded. Analysis shows that even taking into account the growing number of aid workers in the field, the overall rate of violence is increasing year by year.

The majority of attacks (72 per cent) have taken place in a small number of violent settings: Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan and Sudan. In 2011, the world’s newest country – South Sudan –also entered the category of one of the most violent settings for aid workers, ranking as number three. Attacks in many countries have also grown more lethal and sophisticated, and the number of kidnappings has risen dramatically. Since 2009, kidnappings have become the most frequent means of violence against aid workers, showing the steepest and steadiest rise of all tactics over the past decade. Road travel continues to be where aid workers are most vulnerable and where there has been limited attention to security, as compared the significant emphasis on office compound and residential security.

The motives for attacks against aid workers vary. In addition to being soft targets, some contexts are coloured by a growing politicisation of attacks, where aid workers are being targeted by militants for their association with Western military and political campaigns. Other contexts are reflective of high crime, and kidnappings. Attacks are often a result of the multiple incentives in economic gains and political leverage. Some incidents remain incidental, in that aid workers are caught in the cross-fire.

The rise in violence, combined with greater aid agency caution in the face of these attacks, has required aid actors to reframe their ways of operating. Where aid agencies used to simply withdraw or ‘bunker down’, they’re now seeking to adapt and manage the risk associated with working in these contexts. It has prompted increasing use of ‘remote management’ programming approaches which includes withdrawing international staff to capitals (who suffer from higher attack rates relative to their numbers in the field), altering management structures to give more responsibility to national or local staff remaining in situ and/or forming new operational arrangements with local partners or private contractors.The outcome is sometimes an unethical transfer of risk to national staffers and local partners, who are assumed to be at less risk than internationals simply by virtue of their nationality. Lesson learning has prompted an understanding of better practices in this area, including:

  • establishing a highly localised, and static, staffing;

  • appointing diaspora nationals as international staff;

  • adopting a ‘soft’ remote management approach where international staff visit regularly to train, monitor and engage staff; and,

  • decentralizing organisational authority to increase decision-making capacity at local levels, and increasing community ownership.

Despite attempts to maintain a presence, with less on-site monitoring, programmes run the risk of poorer performance, less accountability to beneficiaries, and potential corruption or diversion of funds. Technology has aided remote management and quality control in highly insecure settings. Thanks to social media, GPS mapping, technologies like Skype, SMS, and satellite imagery, it is possible to communicate with staff, partners and beneficiaries with a growing frequency and reliability impossible a decade ago. However, technology is not the sole remedy for insecurity and access constraints. There are challenges involved in relying on technology in some remote locations; cultural issues have been identified, as have security and privacy issues, as well as the general drawback of technology not entirely compensating for the physical divide created by insecurity and restricted movement. Other adaptations include establishing locally based quality assurance teams, employing third party monitoring, or establishing triangulated local monitoring with a combination of vendors, local government officials, and community members.

Much of the research on approaches to delivering aid in insecure environments has focused on the role of humanitarian agencies: the assumption being that it is emergency staff undertaking critical life-saving work. In reality, it’s a more mixed picture, and elements of social protection, resilience and development programming are often occurring at the same time, alongside broader stabilisation interventions. Multi-mandated agencies will attempt to shift from life-saving into more sustainable interventions where opportunities allow, and governments and donors in particular, are keen to see ‘resilience-minded’ responses.

This poses a broader question as to how development work is perceived by warring parties, and what principles should guide it. Humanitarians promote the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence as being critical to gaining secure access. Development actors orientate more towards state building and government ownership, reflecting their commitments to Fragile States principles and the New Deal, as well as principles on Aid Effectiveness. For multi-mandated actors this can mean they’re required to uphold a range of aid principles simultaneously-a difficult, if not, impossible goal to achieve. At the same time, the emerging doctrine around stabilisation and counterinsurgency raise questions as to how donors can adhere to certain aid principles while also supporting their government’s geostrategic security interests.

Operating in highly insecure environments requires difficult decision-making. There is a pressing need to engage in an ongoing dialogue with staff and with other agencies on risk perceptions and aid principles. In particular, agencies would benefit from systematically monitoring and discussing the differing perceptions of risk among all their staff, with a view to identify security risks common to all, as well as those specific to international versus national staff, and to men versus women, and different types of aid work.

This article was published in BOND's The Networker, issue 105 July-September 2013 on pg 14-16.

Adele Harmer