Oxfam staff members distribute food at the Mingkaman camp in South Sudan, where thousands of people were forced from their homes to flee the fighting in and around Bor in Jonglei in 2000. Humanitarian work at some of the world’s most dangerous places. Photo by: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam / CC BY-NC-ND

The global aid industry marked World Humanitarian Day on Tuesday, when new data showed that 2013 was the most dangerous year yet in the profession, with a total of 155 lives lost — almost a third more than a decade earlier.  

As the United Kingdom held its first national commemoration of the 2003 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, an event hosted by the London-based Overseas Development Institute uncovered new research suggesting aid organizations could do much more to prevent violence against their staff.

It’s not only implementing agencies, though, but also donors, governments and individuals involved who can take action. Here are seven suggestions to get started:

1. Keep a sense of perspective — but get more data.

The latest figures are important, but the context of those numbers also matters, argued Larissa Fast, an academic at the University of Notre Dame and author of a new book on violence against aid workers. The increase in fatalities is partly due to rising numbers of aid workers deployed today, she said — even if in some places the number of attacks is outpacing the increase in personnel. And in the most dangerous locations, such as Afghanistan or Syria, more sophisticated reporting — thanks to the tighter security operations — may be skewing the data to suggest an increase.

Aid workers are certainly more vulnerable to attacks today, according to Sara Pantuliano, director of the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI, because they are being “pushed more and more into very violent situations.” Yet in many cases, she said, they might be attacked not for their professional role but for other reasons: personal grievances, or getting involved in a relationship with someone in the local community, for instance.

We still don’t know enough about the motivations for violence, however. For instance, the kidnapping of aid workers in Afghanistan could be political or economic, depending on whether the staff are local or expat, where they were abducted, when the abduction took place, or whether the employer of the humanitarians had sought permission from tribal authorities to go about their work in those domains.

2. Address internal vulnerabilities.

Fast’s book quotes aid experts who highlight expats’ “insensitive behavior and negative perceptions” of the international NGO world. For instance, one security director told her that most incidents are preventable at the organizational level. Much more attention about these “internal vulnerabilities” of organizations is needed, according to the author, alongside an awareness of the (equally important) external drivers of violence.

The danger of focusing only on the latter — including greater availability of weapons or polarized dynamics between the West and Muslim countries — she argued, is that security becomes “what’s out there.” And that makes it seem the responsibility only of security professionals — rather than being something of importance to everyone. Agencies should be more concerned about perceptions too. “It’s one thing to claim neutrality; it’s another thing, much more difficult I think, to be actually seen as neutral or impartial,” Fast said. “There needs to be a concerted effort for aid agencies that choose that kind of principled stance to really embody these principles, not just to claim them.”

NGOs must constantly assess the context in which they work, argued Rae McGrath, North Syria director at Mercy Corps, rather than discovering “accidentally” that the situation is much worse than expected. “It’s their job to make sure that they integrate security and conflict analysis as part of their day-to-day work,” he said, while decisions on whether and how to engage in a conflict zone must consider “the scale of your operations against the risks you’re taking.”

3. Less ‘bunkerization,’ more consent.

One of the outcomes of the 2003 Baghdad bombing, which claimed the lives of 22 U.N. staff, has been the fortification or so-called “bunkerization” of aid.

That physical separation behind high walls and barbed wire has ramifications, said Fast: it puts up psychological boundaries and “undermines the central ethos of humanitarianism.” Instead, she called for more “consent-based approaches” to security: investing more in talking, negotiating, even simply “drinking tea” with local people. Even if protective or deterrent measures are also needed, agencies need to recognize that they bring “some subtle and hidden costs — and to assess whether or not it’s worth it.”

Working for acceptance may not be the panacea, said Pantuliano — it won’t guarantee immunity from attacks. Agencies, she explained, need to do much more to make clear the reasons they’re there. There are some positive examples, however: in Afghanistan, some organizations working in areas controlled by the Taliban have gone to “extreme lengths to make sure they were understood by the community, and as far as possible accepted.” And one or two of the most “innovative” donors — which she declined to name — have been prepared to invest significantly so that implementing organizations can spend up to a year building trust and brokering engagement with locals before actually deploying aid workers.

4. Reconsider the professionalization of the sector.

The professionalization of the security response might make aid workers feel safer, but many also believe it removes them yet further from those they want to help. For Pantuliano, the building of fortresses has “driven away the focus of why we are there.”

Fast also feels that in the push for more professionalization of the sector in general, “the pendulum may have swung too far.” That can affect security. For instance, with greater pressure than ever from donors to submit project reports, “aid workers aren’t necessarily spending as much time in the field as they might have 10 or 15 years ago. That has repercussions for how people are seen; and it also devalues some of these other potential responses that might deal with some of these negative perceptions that might exist.”

McGrath also said donors shouldn’t be making things more complicated than necessary. Setting up working groups or having more people keeping records is just an “unnecessary addition of bureaucracy” that means more staff are deployed, increasing the exposure of their organizations to danger. “When you’re working in conflict, you should have enough staff, but certainly with international staff, you shouldn’t be overflowing with them,” he said.

5. Deploy the right person — with the right skills.

Security measures must also cover human resources policies. Aid agencies must have “hiring procedures sophisticated enough to deploy the best person for the job,” said Pantuliano. That means considering whether a local or international hire makes most sense, what level of experience is required, but also considerations about ethnicity or political leanings that might put someone at greater risk.

Aid agencies need to recruit not just technical expertise, said Fast, but also “soft skills” like communication, negotiation, and relationship-building. “Those skills of empathy and connecting with people — those are very tangible skills, but they’re not necessarily seen as such,” she noted.

While those sitting in an agency’s head office might have all the training they need, McGrath wondered whether the same was always true in the field. “How many drivers, who are nearly always local people, are trained in negotiating checkpoints, in conflict awareness, in using a trauma kit?”

6. Stop thinking only of expats.

They may not make the international headlines, but most victims of violence are local aid workers, not their expat colleagues. Of the 460 people who were victims of major attacks last year, 401 were national staff, according to data compiled by Humanitarian Outcomes.

That may be partly a reflection of the numbers: it is estimated that less than 8 percent of humanitarian staff in the field are international. Mercy Corps, for example, has 400 staff in Afghanistan, only four of which are internationals.

With that in mind, isn’t it high time for a discussion that doesn’t only focus on the evacuation of expats? Pantulaino argued the sector needs to get away from “this hierarchy of security protocols for international and local staff ... The assumption should not be that [local staff] are better protected, because they know the country,” because in fact they may even be more exposed as members of a particular ethnic or religious group, she said.

7. Don’t use humanitarian action as a substitute — and don’t call us heroes.

Governments are placing too much responsibility on humanitarians, said Pantuliano. Syria is a perfect example of a country where failed diplomatic engagement is compensated with a “massive humanitarian response” that sees humanitarians pushed to the front lines of a deeply entrenched and bitter conflict.

McGrath agreed, saying: “Very often now when a politician is asked, what they’re doing about the conflict in Syria or Iraq or wherever, and the answer is: ‘We’re sending humanitarian aid’ — well that’s not an answer at all. Humanitarian aid is not a solution.”

That may be partly why some feel uncomfortable with the notion of humanitarians as heroes, as promoted by the official World Humanitarian Day campaign.

“Firing on [aid workers] is a breach of international law, but it is important to remember they are professionals doing a job,” said Pantuliano. The mythical concept of heroism, she added, “raises expectations that they should be deployed in situations that put lives in danger.”

Fast acknowledged that aid workers “do lots of very courageous things,” but said that putting them on a pedestal makes recognizing and learning from mistakes more difficult. “Heroes are infallible. If we think of aid workers as ordinary human beings, it’s a much healthier way of thinking about aid work and makes it possible to integrate learning as part of that.”

McGrath said recognition of the work humanitarians do is “long overdue.” But as for heroism? “I don’t know anybody who does this work who thinks of themselves as a hero,” he said. “I’ve lost friends and colleagues over the past 30 years doing this work ... I don’t think they were heroes — they were good humans, doing what they should do.”

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About the author

  • Anna Patton

    Anna Patton is a freelance journalist and media facilitator specializing in global development and social enterprise. Currently based in London, she previously worked with development NGOs and EU/government institutions in Berlin, Brussels and Dar es Salaam as well as in the U.K., and has led media projects with grass-roots communities in Uganda and Kenya. Anna has an master’s degree in European studies — specializing in EU development policy — and is a fellow of the On Purpose social enterprise program.