Providing Aid in Insecure Environments: Trends in violence against aid workers and the operational response (2009 Update)

Briefing papers
April 2009
Abby Stoddard, Adele Harmer and Victoria DiDomenico

In 2008, 260 humanitarian aid workers were killed, kidnapped or seriously injured in violent attacks – the highest yearly toll on record. The majority of these attacks took place in just three countries: Sudan, Afghanistan and Somalia. Kidnappings in particular have increased since 2006, increasing 350% compared since 2006. The fatality rate of aid workers from malicious acts alone surpassed that of United Nations peacekeeping soldiers in 2008. In the most violent contexts for aid workers, politically motivated attacks have risen relative to common crime and banditry, as international aid organisations are perceived as part of Western geopolitical interests.

This HPG Policy Brief analyses 12 years worth of data on attacks on aid workers. The figures are examined by location, tactics, and the types of organisation and staff affected. The sharpest increases in attack rates have been suffered by international (expatriate) staff of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).  UN aid agencies have seen attack rates rise mainly for their national staff members and local contractors, particularly truck drivers. Despite the recent upswing in international staff attacks, the long-term trend suggests the casualty rate of national staff  is rising faster than international staff. The International Committee of the Red Cross is the only humanitarian organisation examined to have a decrease in attacks against the organisation in the past few years, although it has by no means been immune.

The report concludes that despite improved and professionalised security management, humanitarian organisations are unable to secure their personnel in a small number of the most dangerous operational settings, particularly Afghanistan and Somalia, where they have been identified as legitimate targets by armed groups pursuing broad political aims. The report cites field-level analysis from aid agencies in Afghanistan attesting to the rapidly deteriorating security environment for aid workers and their increasing difficulty in negotiating access to populations in need.  The report recognises the trend of aid organisations attempting to disassociate themselves from political actors and reinforce the principles of humanitarian independence and neutrality, but at the same time warns that in these most highly contested political/military environments this approach will not necessarily achieve security for aid workers on the front lines.