Doctor Mohamed Dawalbeit attends to a patient in El Sereif hospital in North Darfur, Sudan. Photo by: Albert González Farran / UNAMID

Ten years ago, 80 percent of humanitarian assistance worldwide went to addressing natural disasters. Today, 80 percent is spent on handling the results of violent conflict, said Thomas Staal, acting assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

An increase in aid worker attacks accompanies these statistics. In 2014 there were 190 attacks against aid workers — triple the 63 attacks reported in 2004. Meanwhile, the number of aid workers killed surged to 121 in 2014 from 56 in 2003, a time span that also saw a dramatic rise in harassment by roadside militias and unwarranted search and seizures.

“Around the world, humanitarians grapple with the willful denial of access,” Staal said. “Humanitarian aid is obstructed by incomprehensible rules as well as bad actors, while arms flow freely across borders.”

Staal, who has worked at USAID since 1988 — in hotspots ranging from Sudan to the West Bank and Gaza — was one of half a dozen speakers at a June conference at the U.S. Institute of Peace called “Frontline Diplomats and Development Workers.”

The event preceded by six days the release of a congressional report on the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other American civilian personnel. As one speaker after another noted, diplomats aren’t the only ones targeted by bad guys. Employees of INGOs also face risks overseas, as do Peace Corps volunteers and USAID employees around the globe.

The answer, according to participants, isn’t to lock aid workers behind higher walls. But there are increased precautions to take and security measures to consider in order to keep those working overseas safe.

Heather Higginbottom, deputy secretary of state for management and resources, said her agency has revamped its guidelines for protecting both U.S. diplomats as well as aid workers in overseas danger zones following the State Department’s 2015 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.

This included setting six priorities ranging from adapting aid programs to shifting security situations to how diplomats can physically move around in conflict zones. A mechanism was established to understand better which posts face the greatest threats, and to make sure they get priority in meeting security needs. Hands-on training for high-threat posts has intensified, as have efforts to draw lessons from the field more systematically, she said.

The next stage must to offer better care to the people who take the risks, as well as their families, Higginbottom said, which includes expanding the current access to peer and mental health support.

“People don’t want to be locked behind walls,” said Stacia George, deputy director of USAID’s Office of Transitional Initiatives. They want to have impact,” she said. “Imagine after Hurricane Katrina if the people who were told to rebuild New Orleans had to do it from Atlanta. It’s not the same. That’s not to say we want to take arbitrary risks, but there’s a lot of risk we take by not getting out there.”

On the other hand, governments around the world are imposing legal and fiscal restrictions on aid workers, which “hampers their ability to operate freely,” Staal said. “When I was in Sudan registering World Vision, I met with Sudan’s head of security. He told me, ‘Everyone comes to Sudan for one of three reasons: spying, subversion or proselytizing. My job is to find out which one of those is you, and expel you.’”

Even so, Staal said, the aid community cannot become bunkerized. As such, USAID has boosted the number and intensity of the security training required of staffers in high-threat environments. In 2013, for example, following the flare-up in local conflicts in South Sudan, USAID began training its local staff in trauma awareness and resilience. Staffers in 30 countries must now undergo similar courses.

The agency also calibrates programming so it remains responsive to shifting needs, he said.

In some places, they’re working more closely with the U.S. military. In the Central African Republic, partners negotiated with MINUSCA [United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Central Africa] to increase patrolling of roads where the World Food Program was becoming victims of roadblocks and attacks.

“Even in places where we don’t think we’re a party to a conflict, we are seen as part of the problem,” he said. “In the past, aid workers were seen as somehow neutral. That’s clearly no longer the case in many countries.”

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About the author

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    Larry Luxner

    Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat. As a freelance journalist and photographer, his assignments have included visiting Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, taking a look at Bangladesh’s preparations for climate change and chronicling Kazakhstan’s efforts to revive the Aral Sea. Luxner is a Miami native who has lived in both Israel and Puerto Rico.