Why the adage "good people doing good work" no longer protects aid workers

by CARE International | CARE International
Tuesday, 19 August 2014 07:00 GMT

This 2006 file photo shows an Afghan woman standing near an aid distribution table set up by CARE International in Kabul, Afghanistan. REUTERS/Stringer

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On World Humanitarian Day, Director of the CARE International Safety and Security Unit Barry Steyn talks about the risk to humanitarian workers and how CARE seeks to protect its staff.

Q: Why do humanitarian workers face more insecurity?

A: It is true that the number of attacks on humanitarians has risen and they are increasingly being targeted, though it is difficult to determine by exactly how much. That’s because the number of humanitarian workers in the field varies each year. Also, there are specific locations in which most incidents occur. Kidnapping for ransom – where particularly expatriates but also national staff are simply seen as financial assets – is just one example which has seen a massive increase over the last couple of years.

But there are many reasons why the situation today is different than it was many years ago. Firstly, the shape of conflict and those involved has changed. The old adage of “good people doing good work” is no longer a guarantee of security.

Perception is an issue. Humanitarian workers are sometimes perceived to represent values, cultures or norms that are viewed as foreign or even dangerous. And so the staff, whether they are international or national staff, can be targeted for ideological or political reasons.

Another big factor is that we are sharing the humanitarian field with an ever increasing number but also variety of actors. There are all sorts of humanitarian organisations, military organisations and others which are assisting local communities and they may not recognise us as a separate entity. They may simply see a massive international group of foreign organisations.

So it is increasingly difficult to be independent, impartial and neutral and most importantly it is increasingly difficult to be perceived as such.

Q: What is CARE doing to ensure that CARE staff are safe?

A: It’s always a difficult balance to maintain between the risks to staff, programmes and also humanitarian outcomes. When we take too much risk, we put our staff in danger, but if we don’t take enough risk, we risk not being able to access communities.

Although more work needs to be done, we have improved our risk management a lot over recent years. We’ve done a massive amount of resourcing, training of staff and awareness-raising. We have safety and security advisors in all complex environments; they are constantly advising, analysing and assessing the situation. They are prepared for the situation as it evolves. For me, the biggest difference is the amount of emphasis we place on safety and security, specifically of staff, and the fact that we are resourcing it to a larger extent.

Q: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has launched an initiative to “set a new agenda for global humanitarian action” ahead of the first World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in 2016. Where do you see the future of safety and security?

A: A good emergency response includes good risk management and good risk management creates a good emergency response. It is one thing to support vulnerable populations in South Sudan or Gaza, for example, but the key is to maintain balance.

If a staff member is involved in a serious incident we may temporarily suspend our programmes or, in a worst case scenario, even close our office in those specific locations, and that is to the disadvantage to all. By the same token, unless we accept some level of risk we will be unable to even access vulnerable populations.

So we have to help people in need in a way that balances all the risks. Risk management is there to protect humanitarian programmes and unless we include all aspects in the conversation we cannot maintain the balance required.