Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
An Afghan worker stands in front of the destroyed U.N. guesthouse Nov. 5, 2009, in Kabul. The U.N. decided to pull 600 staff temporarily due to security concerns after the Oct. 28 militant attack that killed five staff members and wounded nine.
An Afghan worker stands in front of the destroyed U.N. guesthouse Nov. 5, 2009, in Kabul. The U.N. decided to pull 600 staff temporarily due to security concerns after the Oct. 28 militant attack that killed five staff members and wounded nine. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Being a humanitarian aid worker overseas has been risky in the best of times, but it has become dramatically more dangerous in the past few years.
In places like Afghanistan, Somalia and the Darfur region of Sudan, relief workers say they are being actively targeted with greater frequency by a murky assortment of insurgents, militias and criminal bands.
Sometimes the attacks are aimed at stealing scarce equipment or generating cash through kidnaps for ransom. In Darfur, for example, many aid groups have been forced to stop driving around in imported Toyota Land Cruisers after a rash of violent carjackings.
But a growing number of violent incidents appear to be more politically motivated and carried out by groups with no respect for international conventions on the neutrality of humanitarian work. The Taliban in Afghanistan reportedly has called for attacks on aid workers, while Taliban chief Mullah Omar explicitly threatened women working for relief groups.
"Some of these organizations have made explicit statements legitimizing the targeting of aid workers," says Michael O'Neill, the security director for Save the Children, which operates around the world. "We're in a very tight space here, and we are challenged to remain operational on the one hand, and to provide for adequate safety and security management of our operations, assets and personnel."
Overall, some 260 aid workers were killed, kidnapped or seriously injured in 2008, the highest annual toll in 12 years of data, according to a report by the Humanitarian Policy Group of the U.K.-based Overseas Development Institute. The report pointed out that the fatality rate for international aid workers exceeded that of United Nations peacekeeping troops.
Preliminary data show that 2009 is on track to be similarly bad, with more than 136 aid worker victims in the first six months of the year.
That tally does not include one of the more deadly recent attacks. Five United Nations workers in Afghanistan were killed last month in an assault on a U.N. guesthouse. In the aftermath, the U.N. quickly pulled hundreds of foreign staffers out the country for security reasons.
More Violence, Less Aid Delivered
The U.N. and aid groups are struggling to figure out what more they can do to protect their workers.
"The bad news is that whatever they try in these most violent areas, it doesn't seem to be working," says Abby Stoddard, who, as a partner with Humanitarian Outcomes, an independent aid consulting outfit, helps analyze the aid worker attack data. "These groups are pulling back and access is shrinking, so less aid is being delivered."
Privately, some aid workers say that U.S. strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan exacerbates the problem by explicitly making humanitarian missions an integral part of the U.S. military's counterinsurgency plan.
An Afghan policeman carries an injured unidentified U.N. worker from the site of a attack in Kabul, Afghanistan on Oct. 28, 2009. Gunmen attacked a guest house used by U.N. staff, killing five. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
An Afghan policeman carries an injured unidentified U.N. worker from the site of a attack in Kabul, Afghanistan on Oct. 28, 2009. Gunmen attacked a guest house used by U.N. staff, killing five. The Taliban claimed responsibility. Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP
"A lot of aid these days, funded by Western donors, is being conflated with counterinsurgency strategies and hearts-and-minds strategies," O'Neill says. "It's not just aid for the sake of a broader humanitarian perspective. It's aid for a military-related objective."
The U.S. government has been creating provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq and Afghanistan staffed by military and civilian officials to carry out missions typically performed by non-governmental organizations — a practice that aid officials say risks blurring the line between the two.
In October 2001, then Secretary of State Colin Powell described NGOs as "force multipliers" and "an important part of our combat team." This past April, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, estimated that 90 percent of U.S. knowledge about Afghanistan comes from aid groups, a statement that appeared to some to imply a close working relationship between aid workers and the government.
"It's not as much 9/11 as the reaction to 9/11," O'Neill says. "It's how the United States responded with the emergence of the U.S. military and the Department of Defense in the aid and development realm. It makes it less clear who are the combatants and who are the non-combatants."
The rate of attacks on aid workers has increased dramatically in the most dangerous areas — Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia. Outside of those areas, the numbers of incidents have risen, but so have the number of aid workers and NGOs operating overseas.
"If you look at the statistics, in 2001, we have about 77,000 aid workers out there," says John Schafer, the director of security for Interaction, a U.S.-based alliance of 180 aid groups. "Now we have more than 200,000, and it's growing. That does not even include the faith-based groups."
Seeking Professional Security Expertise
The higher risk and exposure levels are forcing NGOs to become more professional when it comes to security and take all kinds of new precautions, from suspending operations in the most inhospitable areas to investing in security measures.
Aid groups, other NGOs, and faith-based organizations are also turning increasingly to organizations like the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a forum run by the State Department to share threat information with private companies and NGOs.
OSAC regularly shares unclassified security warnings, informal threat assessments and data on terrorism and crime trends with its members, which include a quickly growing number of aid groups. It also has a 24-hours emergency response line and more than 120 country councils all over the world, from Baghdad to Bangladesh.
With 433 NGO members, including faith-based groups, non-profits have become one of OSAC's fastest growing constituencies, many of them joining within the past few years.
"One thing we are mindful about is that NGOs are going into many, many dangerous areas," says Daniel Weber, OSAC's executive director. "What we hope for is to best prepare them for the worst."
OSAC also helps aid groups share security information with private companies, a practice that many NGOs had avoided in the past to help maintain their image as neutral parties.
"I'm going to some of these meetings and I'm sitting down with the head of security for Marriott Hotels, for example," says Save the Children's O'Neill. "They've had a number of incidents and they have useful procedures for us to learn."
Of course, it's not just aid workers in war zones that are running into trouble.
No One Is Immune
Rotary International has been running clubs abroad for most of its 105-year history. In that time, it never had a serious security incident — until earlier this year.
One of its Canadian volunteers was leading an exchange program in northern Nigeria when she was kidnapped in April.
Although Rotary was not a member of OSAC at the time, OSAC officials helped coordinate the group's response to the incident with the Canadian government and Nigerian authorities.
State Department officials at OSAC soon concluded the incident was not related to terrorism, but a new style of kidnap-for-ransom in the area.
"Because of our experience in analytic work and our focus on the Niger Delta, we saw this as an unusual kidnapping," Weber says. "It didn't fit the practice at the time."
Coordinating with other NGOs in Nigeria, local contacts, and tribal leaders, OSAC was able to help secure the release of the Rotary volunteer 13 days later.
For its part, Rotary quickly became an OSAC member.
"This experience for us was unfortunately a wake-up call that we do indeed live in a different world," says Ed Futa, the general secretary for Rotary International. "Perhaps we should have awakened earlier. If we want to operate internationally in 33,000 clubs in over 180 countries and geographic regions, we have to expect that we're not immune."
Sometimes, aid groups have been able to find their own ways of resolving dangerous incidents. Interaction's Schafer tells the story of a Pakistani doctor who was working for an NGO in one of the most dangerous parts of Pakistan when he was kidnapped earlier this year.
In response, "all of the doctors went on strike," Schafer says. "On the third day, all of the women in the town said they would go on strike. The following day, the doctor was returned."
In the end, aid workers say their best defense is to gain the trust of the locals in the areas where they operate.
"We recognize that it's risky doing what we do, and we accept that," O'Neill says. "While we have very limited influence or control over the threat, we have a greater amount of control over our vulnerabilities and that's what we really try to manage."