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Iraq

Dangerouser and dangerouser? Aid workers on the front lines

Nicholas van Praag's picture
   Threatened symbol of neutrality

When I was working as a field officer with UNHCR in eastern Sudan in the mid 1980s, the living conditions were tough but we did not fear for our lives.

A couple of years later, a faction of the PLO attacked the Acropole Hotel in Khartoum, the city’s main hang-out for aid workers and journalists.  Four people were killed and more injured.

The aid fraternity was in shock at what they saw as a dagger lunged into the heart of their community.

Today, such an incident would still get headlines but stories of attacks and kidnappings of aid workers are depressingly familiar.

As the amount of overseas development assistance going to countries in conflict or affected by conflict rises, the growing numbers of humanitarian and development staff frequently find themselves in harm’s way.

This trend is due in part to the recurrence of violence.  Research for the WDR shows that many conflict-hit countries experience repeated violent episodes.

The linear progression from war and destruction to peace and development is now the exception rather than the rule.

This means that aid workers are increasingly caught up in the ebb and flow of conflict rather than coming in when the guns fall definitively silent.

Overcoming cultural barriers with sound economics

Zainab Salbi's picture

This post is the first in a series on "Gender and Conflict" which explores gender issues in the context of crisis and violence. Zainab Salbi, Founder and CEO of Women for Women International, discusses the cultural complexities involved in working to improve the lives of women in fragile and conflict-affected states.

   Photo © Women for Women International

Working to improve the lives of women in fragile and conflict-affected states raises complex cultural issues, but sound economic arguments paired with practical solutions can help overcome resistance. 
 
Culture and tradition are too often used to justify the stifling of debate about change, especially when it relates to women’s lives. As an Iraqi-American woman who grew up with Muslim traditions and ended up traveling the world through my work with Women for Women International, an organization that supports women in conflict-affected areas, I have had plenty of exposure to these attitudes.

The use of culture as a defensive weapon blights the lives of women from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Sudan and Afghanistan.  It is used as an excuse to silence opponents. Although the intention may be to respect cultural traditions, it often leads to policies that undermine the social and economic advance of women. 
 
A classic example of this occurred in the first year of the Iraq invasion, when the US governing authority switched food distribution from public stores to mosques. This policy was intended to respect Iraqi culture but, in fact the policy changed the role of the mosque from a private to a public role. For the mosque has played a public role associated with government actions in Iraq’s modern history.

Humanitarian action and state-building in Conflict?

Bruce Jones's picture
   Photo © Arne Noel / World Bank

The past few years have seen the revival of an old debate about the relationship between humanitarian action, military/peacekeeping intervention, and state-building. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the military, humanitarian and development actors are working together in new ways, have raised concerns in each community.

Humanitarian actors worry about the loss of perceived impartiality and access to vulnerable populations. People in the military worry about their effectiveness if not backed up by humanitarian and economic assistance. Development actors worry that military actors are undertaking state-building functions without adequate understanding of the implications of their actions.

Given that the renewed debate derives from Afghanistan and Iraq, the argument is probably overplayed, since it is highly unlikely that the specific mode of engagement in those two cases—grounded in large-scale U.S. military deployments—is likely to characterize the predominant form of response to humanitarian crises or fragile states in conflict. Nevertheless, changing forms and patterns of violence will pose new challenges to these communities.