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Violence towards aid workers increasing

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With attacks on aid workers becoming more frequent, Adele Harmer takes a closer looks at the challenges and how aid and development agencies are adapting to complex environments.

Delivering aid in the midst of conflict has always been dangerous and difficult work. Over the last few years, aid agencies have increased attention to the risks their staff and partners face in these contexts, including examining security, fiduciary, reputational and legal risks. Despite this recent focus, there is a long history of aid organisations adapting their programmes in insecure environments. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as the operational presence of aid organisations in conflict areas increased, aid workers faced a range of threats, including collateral violence, the presence of armed opposition groups, and generalised crime and violence. More recently, however, the situation for aid workers has become more challenging. Increasing targeted attacks against aid workers and their operations, and a range of obstacles and conditions created by militaries, governments, and non-state actors, have all hindered the provision of aid.

Findings from the Aid Worker Security report (2012) show that aid worker casualties have tripled since 2002, reaching over 100 deaths per year. In 2011, 308 aid workers were victims of major attacks – the highest yearly number yet recorded. Analysis shows that even taking into account the growing number of aid workers in the field, the overall rate of violence is increasing year on year.

Violent attacks becoming more frequent and more lethal

The majority of attacks (72 per cent) have taken place in a small number of violent settings: Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan and Sudan. In 2011, the world’s newest country – South Sudan –also entered the category of one of the most violent settings for aid workers, ranking as number three. Attacks in many countries have also grown more lethal and sophisticated, and the number of kidnappings has risen dramatically. Since 2009, kidnappings have become the most frequent means of violence against aid workers, showing the steepest and steadiest rise of all tactics over the past decade. Road travel continues to be where aid workers are most vulnerable and where there has been limited attention to security, as compared the significant emphasis on office compound and residential security. The motives for attacks against aid workers vary. In addition to being soft targets, some contexts are coloured by a growing politicisation of attacks, where aid workers are being targeted by militants for their association with western military and political campaigns. Other contexts are reflective of high crime, and kidnappings. Attacks are often a result of the multiple incentives in economic gains and political leverage. Some incidents remain incidental, in that aid workers are caught in the cross-fire.

Adapting to the changing context

The rise in violence, combined with greater aid agency caution in the face of these attacks, has required aid actors to reframe their ways of operating. Where aid agencies used to simply withdraw or ‘bunker down’, they’re now seeking to adapt and manage the risk associated with working in these contexts. It has prompted increasing use of ‘remote management’ programming approaches which includes withdrawing international staff to capitals (who suffer from higher attack rates relative to their numbers in the field), altering management structures to give more responsibility to national or local staff remaining in situ and/or forming new operational arrangements with local partners or private contractors. The outcome is sometimes an unethical transfer of risk to national staffers and local partners, who are assumed to be at less risk than internationals simply by virtue of their nationality. Lesson learning has prompted an understanding of better practices in this area, including:

  • establishing a highly localised, and static, staffing

  • appointing diaspora nationals as international staff

  • adopting a ‘soft’ remote management approach where international staff visit regularly to train, monitor and engage staff

  • decentralising organisational authority to increase decisionmaking capacity at local levels, and increasing community ownership