WILLIAMSTOWN, Massachusetts — With more aid workers dying in the field than any other time in history, U.N. agencies and NGOs are finding new ways to guarantee aid worker safety.
A report from the Aid Worker Security Database reveals that in 2013, 155 aid workers were killed in the field, while 305 more were seriously wounded or kidnapped. These numbers are 66 percent higher than in 2012.
A portion of this increase can be attributed to the larger number of aid operations conducted by humanitarian agencies worldwide. The Global Humanitarian Assistance reported that the spending by government donors has increased nearly 75 percent over the last decade.
However, the increased number of operations and more accurate reporting of deaths is accompanied by more dangerous aid missions.
Larissa Fast, author of Aid in Danger – The Perils and Promise of Humanitarianism, explains, “Aid agencies are willing to accept more risk and stay in places that are more dangerous than they might have done 10 years ago.”
The Humanitarian Outcomes Report named violent roadside incidents the most common setting for attacks on aid workers. In 2013, over half of all violent incidents occurred in the context of a roadside ambush.
A number of strategies have been employed to curb this traveling risk, including regularly altering routes, keeping a low profile and road reconnaissance. In places like Afghanistan, Yemen and Gaza, NGOs can determine which roads are safest to travel on by contacting recently established coordination bodies.
Although roadside incidents are the most prevalent danger to aid workers, they are a symptom of a deeper issue: disconnect between the humanitarians and the people they are trying to help.
The U.K.-based Overseas Development Institute’s Humanitarian Policy Group conducted a three-year research project studying the relationship between aid workers and Islamist groups in Afghanistan and Somalia.
The ultimate report found that aid agencies ought to commit a large portion of their resources to developing positive relationships with figures at all levels of these groups.
According to the report’s author, Ashley Jackson, “Many NGOs were worried about the high costs of building such networks in terms of manpower and falling foul of counter-terrorism legislation if they interacted with banned groups.”
However, higher levels of interaction with local groups decrease the risk of misunderstandings between aid agencies and militants that commonly lead to killings and kidnappings.
Other than negotiating humanitarian access with Islamist militants, aid agencies often teach their workers the basics of Islamic law. Better understanding of the Islamic legal system helps humanitarians make agreements in countries where standard international humanitarian law may not be accepted.
Delivering aid to war-torn and unstable regions is an inevitably dangerous activity. But by using the aforementioned strategies, NGOs and aid agencies can send their employees into the field with greater safety and security.
– Grace Flaherty