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Aid at risk on many fronts

Humanitarian aid workers in Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan are exposed to attacks. Some parties to the conflicts no longer accept the agencies’ claim to being neutral. NGOs are adjusting to the new dangers, but overreaction would be counterproductive. There is no substitute for acceptance by the parties to a conflict.

[ By Katrin Radtke ]

On 7 August 2010, the world was shocked by the news of the murder of 10 men and women working for a Christian aid agency in Afghanistan. Two Afghan interpreters, six Americans, a British woman and a German woman who had been running an eye clinic in the country died of gunshot wounds. Sabjullah Mujaheed, a Taliban spokesman, said later that they had been killed because they were missionaries and spies for the United States.

In Somalia three months before, a Kenyan doctor, a French doctor and their Somali driver were killed in a bomb attack near a hospital. The three men worked for Médecins sans Frontières. They died of their injuries. The circumstances surrounding the bombing were never clarified.

A terrible trend

Reports of aid workers being abducted, injured and even murdered are no longer rare. Indeed, according to a study published last year by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London, the level of risk to which humanitarian and development workers are exposed grew threefold from 2006 to 2008 (Stoddart et al., 2009).

In 2008, 260 aid workers were attacked, and 122 were murdered. The ODI reports that most of the victims were staff members of UN agencies or NGOs. ­According to UNICEF, the number of attacks on aid workers rose to 278 last year, and 102 were killed.

In most cases, the victims were nationals of the crisis country itself. However, their international colleagues are increasingly at risk too. This kind of violence is largely concentrated in a small number of countries. More than 60 % of all incidents recorded from 2006 to 2008 occurred in Sudan, Somalia or Afghanistan. There was also a surge in the number of politically motivated attacks compared with economically motivated assaults. Even organisations that distance themselves from political actors to preserve their neutrality came under attack.

Due to this terrible trend, the debate on the safety of those working in humanitarian aid and development cooperation has intensified. Attention is focused on the reasons for violence and appropriate protective strategies. It is not yet possible, however, to draw a reliable picture of the causes of the violence. Even the time covered by the ODI study is too short to indicate clear trends. All we have so far, is hypotheses and ­anecdotal reports.

Nevertheless, the ODI document raises important questions. For example, why was the Red Cross (ICRC) rarely a victim of violence? And what makes Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan different from other countries, where aid organisations work largely undisturbed ­despite widespread violence?

Those who offer explanations mostly attribute the growing risks to the shrinking of the “humanitarian sphere” – the protected area of operations based on humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality and designed to ensure that aid reaches the victims of a conflict. In other words, the force of humanitarian principles has diminished in certain areas of conflict. Various reasons are suggested for this depressing trend (see box on page 368).

Responses by aid agencies

Independent aid organisations are responding to the mounting risks in several ways. Their security strategies are still based on acceptance, protection and deterrence. The emphasis is changing, however, because acceptance cannot always be taken for granted in a civil war. Most NGOs consider the blending of humanitarian and military mandates a cause of lower levels of acceptance. This is particularly evident in Afghanistan but also in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Liberia.

Acceptance, moreover, depends on many factors and can be achieved only where local power structures are identifiable and appropriate communication can be established. That is not sufficiently possible either in Somalia or in Afghanistan at present.

Instead of boosting acceptance, therefore, many NGOs have begun to tighten their security management by adding more safeguards. These include barring windows of project offices, provision of night lighting, the employment of security guards and the use of armoured vehicles. Typically, security firms – often with a military background – are contracted for such purposes. Many NGOs now have security advisers on their payroll.

Moreover, civil-society organisations have started security networks to improve the flow of information. Examples include
– the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO),
– the NGO Safety Preparedness and Support Programme in Somalia (SPAS),
– the Gaza NGO Security Office (GANSO),
– the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF) and
– the Security Advisory Group (SAG) of the American NGO umbrella association Interaction.
In Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, some NGOs also rely on deterrent measures. They are still exceptions at present, but the trend is evident. The use of armed escorts – furnished by private security firms – is already a feature of daily life in some cases.

Don’t overreact

No doubt, NGOs need to manage security matters professionally. The teams in the field appreciate many protective measures, considering them extremely useful. However, there is a risk of security efforts leading nowhere since they do not address the core problem, which is the increasingly limited respect for the humanitarian sphere. More military-style protection efforts can easily give rise to more hostility and thwart acceptance, thus making the humanitarian sphere shrink even more. The result would be even greater insecurity.

There is, moreover, the risk of learning the wrong lessons by focussing on a small number of particularly dangerous countries. What may be necessary in these few places, is likely to be out of proportion in most ­other places and will thus prove dysfunctional.

Acceptance of humanitarian aid is what matters most of all, though it sometimes may seem harder to achieve than in the past. Nothing can make up for lack of acceptance. So, in any given situation, the focus needs to be on boosting acceptance and rising to the challenges that currently call it into question. Who­ever abandons the acceptance principle, automatically drops an important fundamental notion too, the one according to which humanitarian aid is exclusively geared to victims’ needs and must serve no other purpose.

Regional competence

With an eye to acceptance of their presence, NGOs should always cultivate communication with all conflicting parties. This should be seen as an absolute must for engagement in any violent context. Efforts aimed at actually establishing such exchange are of crucial relevance and will obviously require sufficient resources and staff.

Instead of relying just on security specialists and military mindsets, NGOs should also seek advice from social anthropologists and regional scientists. Experts familiar with the region can help them to understand complex local power arrangements and perceive processes of change.

At the same time, the limits of the acceptance approach need to be acknowledged. Acceptance cannot be achieved in every situation. NGOs can only address a small number of the factors that call acceptance ­into question.

Against this backdrop, NGOs urgently need to deal with a number of fundamental questions relating to their engagement in crisis and conflict countries. They need to define
– the role they see for themselves in the context of “integrated missions”, “comprehensive approaches” and “comprehensive security”,
– the extent to which they are prepared to compromise on their original mandate in the future and
– the point at which meaningful work becomes impossible.
On top of conducting risk analysis, NGOs need to define clear thresholds beyond which it would be better to wrap up operations in a country or region.


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