Humanitarianism and the Question of Security

The need for better humanitarian security is clear. Total attacks on aid workers have skyrocketed in recent years, while major incidents per field worker doubled.

Thus, the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at City University of New York's Graduate Center hosted a conference on the Frontiers of Humanitarianism this week, where debate centered on how to protect staffers and the people they serve.

The International Rescue Committee, which has been working in conflict zones for 75 years, is constantly debating its security measures.

"Protection has always been an element of what we do," said Sarah Smith, director of child protection and development at IRC. "The question is not about whether we protect, but how we protect."

Protecting aid workers can mean working towards acceptance from the community, going low profile with unmarked cars, or deterrence, which includes armed guards and armored SUVs.

But that's just part of the equation. Civilian deaths in the three most dangerous regions – Afghanistan, Somalia, and Darfur – have also increased markedly, which points up the connection between aid workers and civilians: If you can't protect the former, you can't protect the latter.

"This distinction between staff and beneficiaries is perhaps a false one," said Smith, explaining that most of the staff are community members that live there, know the people and share their language and culture. To protect civilians, humanitarian actors can promote self-protection, advocate to their governments, foster a secure aid environment and even work toward direct protection – as in bringing refugees to camps or delivering children to orphanages.

Yet because humanitarians often lack consent and protective capacity, Nicolas de Torrente, senior research fellow at Medecins Sans Frontiers USA and a former field worker, called it an "impossible mandate" for aid groups.

"When measures are taken it's often problematic," he said. "They might not be effective and could compromise the aid work."

Torrente cited how sometimes the mere presence of humanitarian actors deters attacks on civilians, but at the same time it's a potential danger – as in Zaire, where Torrente saw armed groups use humanitarians to lure civilians out of jungle hideouts. Additionally, speaking out in defense of people in danger often upsets one group or the other. It also represents a deviation from humanitarian principles.

Torrente said the best practice is to provide assistance to victims in such a way that does not endanger them, to ask tough questions and make sure promises are kept.

But the increasing standardization and professionalization of humanitarian security has actually narrowed the range of options, according to Larissa Fast, assistant professor at the Kroc Institute for International Peace at the University of Notre Dame. As aid agencies compete for donor dollars and play follow the leader, the practical security options are reduced. Further, the "bunkerization" of humanitarian work – using armed guards, razor wire and armored SUVs – has created a cycle of fear and a separation between aid workers and civilians.

Such difficulties underscore a philosophical hurdle.

"Humanitarian security strategies are usually reactive, assuming a problem can be fixed," Fast said. "But active acceptance is the only thing that can deflect these attacks."

That appeared to be the consensus among the panelists, who saw clarifying one's mission and humanitarian principles and building trust among locals as the best among a handful of mediocre options. This raises one last problem.

"Trust doesn't happen overnight," said Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University. "So how do we deal with this dilemma in the short term?"

About the author

  • Headshot

    David Lepeska

    David has served as U.N. correspondent for the newswire UPI and reported for several major newspapers, including the New York Daily News and Newsday. He was chief correspondent for the Kashmir Observer in Srinagar, India, and regularly contributes to the Economist, among other publications. Since 2007, David has reported for Devex News from Washington, New York, as well as South Asia.