How can aid workers reduce risks of getting attacked?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 12 Apr 2011 23:34 GMT
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p>(Clarifies that field trips were done by researchers)

LONDON (AlertNet) - How do aid workers ensure access to people in need when attacks against them have tripled in the past decade, resulting in the deaths of more than 100 people a year?

Well, here are a few ideas.

Stick faithfully to the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality - and deliver results based on them; lose (a bit) the Western face (too often associated with military forces leading to perceptions of bias) and hire more nationals; ditch the logos and go for a low-profile approach; involve the community; take a leaf out of the International Committee of the Red Cross' (ICRC) book and start talking to everyone (with a gun or otherwise); invest properly in dialogue and keep it going.

Those are just some of the recommendations of a report commissioned by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) highlighting some of the best examples of tackling security hurdles in difficult and dangerous environments.

"The last 10 years represent one of the worst decades ever in terms of attacks on humanitarian workers and lack of humanitarian access," said former U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland in the preface of the report To Stay and Deliver.

"When people in need are deprived of assistance because relief workers are attacked or blocked, we are not faced with a political or diplomatic 'problem' - we are faced with an outrage and a criminal act under international and national laws."

Major attacks that have led to death, kidnapping or serious injury have levelled off in the last five years, the report said. However, violence against aid workers in a small number of countries -Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan top the list - have driven up the number of aid worker casualties globally.

Kidnappings remain the fastest growing type of attack against aid workers. The use of heavy explosive devices, including suicide and roadside bombings, are also increasing. According to the report, attacks have become more complex with, in some cases, a combination of suicide bombers and armed attackers being deployed.

As a result, the humanitarian footprint has shrunk in areas where violence has intensified in recent years such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia.

Despite the expectation, shared by heads of state and the general public alike, that people should receive immediate relief when conflict or disasters strike, Egeland said governments, parties to armed conflict and other players are not doing enough to secure unrestricted access for aid workers.

"... on the contrary, those who control territory, funding, or simply the closest guns are too often allowed to harass, politicise, militarise and undermine humanitarian action with impunity," he added.


One way aid organisations can make it easier for themselves is by gaining acceptance from all sides in order to work freely.

The study points to what it calls a headline finding - the greater an organisation's proven capacity to communicate and negotiate with the players that count, the better the access and security it achieves for its humanitarian operations.

Take ICRC, for example. The Geneva-headquartered group, which has carved a reputation for neutrality and discretion, gets a nod from OCHA for continuously engaging with all parties to a conflict as well as local communities.

The report said in Afghanistan, ICRC reached more than 10,000 people with its message in the course of one year, by taking part in 500 separate meetings.

The report also suggested that aid agencies shift their focus to "how to stay" as opposed to "when to leave". Rather than limiting their activities based on risks, they should identify all possible means to deliver their programme goals.

Another suggestion was to avoid "bunkerisation" which keeps humanitarian organisations at a distance both mentally and physically from the populations they are serving.

"There is little point in an aid agency being present in a country if its staff remain behind compound walls or cloistered in safe areas and capital cities, unable to work with the people in need," the report added.

It said the few organisations that have maintained or expanded operations in the most dangerous environments have recruited staff in consultation with their communities and appointed nationals from the diaspora as international staff - tactics that have allowed them to keep a low-profile.

International humanitarian organisations should also take security for national staff more seriously. The study found that most national aid workers believe overall security management is improving, but most also feel they are still more exposed and face greater risk than their international colleagues.

Perhaps most worrying, though not unsurprising, is the study's conclusion that some aid agencies have caved in to restrictions imposed on them by both host countries and donor governments, or closely aligned themselves with political and military players - at the expense of their humanitarian principles.

The study was the result of six field trips done by a research team led by Egeland, who is now based at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, to Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Palestinian territories, Pakistan, Somalia and Darfur in Sudan. The team also analysed the situation in Chad, Colombia, Haiti, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Yemen.

AlertNet has a factbox on innovative ways of delivering aid in conflict zones.