Rendering Assistance to Aid Workers

By Matthew Harwood

Aid workers, who render assistance to the most vulnerable populations in the least hospitable regions of the world, have long operated with protected status under international humanitarian law. Combatants, nevertheless, increasingly ignore this protection. From Iraq to Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, aid workers have faced savage attacks when working within conflict zones. In August 2006, for example, 17 employees of a French humanitarian organization, Action Against Hunger, were shot execution-style in the Sri Lankan town of Muttur.

The Muttur massacre only added to the fear already wrought by attacks targeting the United Nations headquarters and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Iraq in August and October of 2003, respectively.

This trend was highlighted in a 2006 joint report by the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) and the Center on International Cooperation that studied major violent acts against aid workers from 1997 to 2005. Around the world, 83 aid workers were killed in 2006, the most since 2003.

Violence against aid workers “is not random, but overwhelmingly directly targeted—and increasingly politically motivated,” states Abby Stoddard, a co-author of the report and a senior research associate at the Center on International Cooperation.

Terrorists in trouble spots like the Sudan, Somalia, and Afghanistan target aid workers from nongovenmental organizations (NGOs) to force them to leave, cutting off avenues of assistance for the population. For example, the ambush and murder of five aid workers for Doctors Without Borders in 2004 led the organization to pull out of Afghanistan.

“If you’re trying to destabilize the governments… it’s a very effective tool of terror to attack the last hope the beneficiaries have in that area,” says Stoddard.

In an effort to mitigate the risks aid workers face, organizations have begun to address security more directly than in the past.

InterAction, the largest alliance of over 160 international development and humanitarian organizations based in the United States, adopted Minimum Operating Security Standards (MOSS) in June 2006, and it gave member organizations until December 2008 to phase in the required security measures.

MOSS has five components: organizational security policies and plans; resources to address security; human resource management; accountability; and a sense of community. These components address everything from ensuring that members have written formal crisis management plans, to enhancing mutual security among NGOs by promoting information sharing.

MOSS is flexible, and it allows security arrangements to evolve according to changing circumstances on the ground. For example, now that attacks against aid-worker offices and residences are greater in some hotspots, aid organizations in those locations are advised to build fortified safe rooms within those structures.

InterAction has hired a security coordinator to help their members understand and implement MOSS. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) provided the money that made InterAction’s security coordinator position possible.

In addition, USAID’s Office of Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) now requires international NGOs looking for grants to account for the security measures they will implement to protect their staff in overseas crises. Its guidelines encourage all applicants to adopt MOSS if they haven’t already.

Shawn Bardwell, safety and security coordinator at USAID/OFDA, says, “The language is a tap on the shoulder [of InterAction] saying this is great. We encourage this kind of thinking about security.”

The European Commission Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO) has also been supporting security management practices for European NGOs. It has provided a training manual and modules for NGOs to use when training their employees in the latest security techniques.

At the international level, the United Nations’ Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) passed the “Saving Lives Together” framework in October 2006. The framework allows UN agencies to collaborate on security matters with other NGOs. Now, when NGOs operate in the same regions as the UN, they will have access to the UNDSS security information.

In addition, the framework promotes the pooling of resources for common security training. It also calls on all UN, NGO, and intergovernmental organizations to agree on minimum security standards adapted to local circumstances.

These efforts are in their infancy, however. This new spirit of coordination and cooperation between the UN and NGOs hasn’t been completely felt on the ground yet, says HPG report author Stoddard. “The problem is that there are still too many security officers in the field that take the easy way out” and restrict “aid programming when they deem the situation insecure, rather than seek ways to enable programming,” she says.

While everyone agrees on the need for some level of security, the HPG study urges that the violence be kept in perspective: For every 10,000 aid workers in the field, the rate of violence has only increased from five victims (of killings, kidnappings, and armed attacks resulting in major injury) a year to six in the study’s timeframe, broken into two time periods (1997-2001 and 2002-2005).

It’s also important to note that there is a limit to how walled-off aid workers can be—or want to be. Jim Bishop, InterAction’s vice president of Humanitarian Policy and Practice, stresses how an NGO’s security philosophy differs from that of governments or private corporations. “It’s one that emphasizes acceptance,” he says.

“Our members have to live out in the community in order to provide the services that are the reason for their being there. And that means that they have to establish a rapport with the community in which they are living, and they’re not going to be doing that if they’re living in fortress-like compounds and traveling around in armored vehicles,” he said. 

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