LONDON — U.K. lawmakers have called on the Department for International Development to use its diplomatic power and other measures to tackle violence against aid workers after some 270 were killed or injured in the field last year.
In a report published Tuesday, members of the International Development Committee — a cross-party group of politicians tasked with scrutinizing U.K. aid spending — called on DFID to step up its efforts in response to data from the most recent “Aid Worker Security Report 2019," which identified 2018 as the second worst year on record.
While the IDC report suggests that data gaps make it difficult to say with certainty whether attacks on aid workers are consistently increasing, the high number of protracted armed conflicts driving humanitarian crises means that aid workers are perceived to be more at risk than in the past, and are being targeted by some actors.
The report recommends that donors do more to ensure that the protection of aid workers under international humanitarian law is upheld.
“Gaining [community] acceptance can be a costly strategy, [but] in the long term it is likely to be more efficient.”— Lisa Reilly, executive director, European Interagency Security Forum
“We have called on DFID to take the lead in ending violence against humanitarian workers. This should include building international consensus on how better to enforce humanitarian law, but also investigating how diplomatic pressure can be applied against states who hold it in such disregard,” Stephen Twigg, chair of IDC, said in a press release.
Humanitarian groups welcomed the recommendations but argued that the increasing politicization of aid, in the U.K. and other countries, has contributed to the problem by compromising perceptions of aid workers’ neutrality.
“We strongly endorse the recommendation for the U.K. to promote international accountability for violations of the laws of war, and again reiterate the need for the U.K. to call for independent investigations where violations may have occurred,” Suze van Meegen, global advocacy adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council, told Devex in an email, warning that countries including the U.K. have in the past taken a “duplicitous approach,” using humanitarian aid “to plaster over an active or passive contribution to warfare necessitating it in the first place.”
The fact that the new British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has in the past called for DFID to be merged with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, could make it even harder to show impartiality, one source told Devex on condition of anonymity.
“If DFID loses its independence that could lead to greater politicization of aid … which could mean greater risk for aid workers,” they said.
The IDC report also calls on DFID to treat all humanitarian workers equally, and ensure that expat safety is not prioritized over local staff.
“There is a duty of care to all those who do such great work in helping people in desperate need, we cannot forget any of them,” Twigg said in a statement.
Lisa Reilly, executive director of the European Interagency Security Forum, which works on aid worker safety, said she would have liked to have seen stronger words around the need for donors to provide NGOs with direct funding for security mitigation in program budgets — something EISF has been campaigning for in recent weeks.
Currently, staff security is usually calculated as an overhead cost, which can mean it gets overlooked as organizations try to offer the lowest bid, she explained.
However, DFID has now agreed to include a budget line for security risk management in its humanitarian emergency response funding, Reilly said.
A DFID spokesperson told Devex that it is “in the process of updating its budget template for the Rapid Response Facility as part of a regular review. This will be reflected online shortly."
They added that the department was addressing some of the points raised by the IDC report.
“We are already taking action to better protect aid workers by helping to improve security practices across the aid sector, raise safety standards and gather evidence to understand how to prevent future attacks,” the spokesperson said.
Reilly also praised the report’s recommendation that DFID should support work around gaining acceptance in communities and changing negative perceptions of aid workers in some places, as opposed to simply funding “hard security” measures, such as convoys and protection.
“While gaining acceptance can be a costly strategy, in the long term it is likely to be more efficient than just spending on ‘hard security’ which will [negatively] impact community engagement and access,” she said.
Update, Aug. 7: This article was updated to include additional information from DFID provided after publication.