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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.

The presence of civilian workers in these insecure places means physical danger.  The number of attacks in which aid workers were either killed or kidnapped rose from 27 in 1998 to 155 in 2008a six-fold increase.

This trend is driven in large part by a small number of volatile countries, notably Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan.   These are trouble spots where the international community, no matter which hat it is wearing, is often perceived by aggrieved groups as part of the problem rather than the solution.

It is in these places that the symbols of neutrality, so important to aid agencies operating in potentially hostile territory, are most frequently challenged.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, no stranger to conflicted environments, is concerned by the erosion of the protection afforded for so long by the distinctive ICRC logo that flutters above its unarmed vehicles and offices.

The UN, meanwhile, following the attacks on its local headquarters in Baghdad in 2003 and Algiers in 2007, has had to recognize that its own blue flag can be a magnet for aggression rather than the shield it once was.

Further complicating the picture is the increasingly frequent engagement of military forces in traditionally humanitarian and development activities, with soldiers sometimes assisting or working alongside humanitarians and development people.

The attack on the UN mission in Baghdad in 2003 led to a dramatic increase in spending on security arrangements.  In some places it includes military and armed protection as well as new rules that make it hard for aid staff to get out of their well-guarded compounds.

Many relief and development staff rail at these restrictions and some doubt that they are more secure as a result.  But tighter security is a fact of life in many of the world’s most insecure places.

Heightened attention to security in-theatre is matched by a shift to ‘remote management’.  This means withdrawing international staff to safer locations and using national staff to deliver or supervise programs at the front lines.

All of this has raised costs and makes it more difficult to reach marginalized and under-served communitiesas well as making it harder for international staff to understand local realities.

In hindsight, my stint in eastern Sudan in the 1980s seems like a safer era for aid workers.  But overall things have not changed as much as popular perceptions would have it.

If you take Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan out of the equation, the number of attacks on aid workers world-wide has actually gone down over the last decade.

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