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Increasing Risks to Aid Workers? Part II

What should aid agencies do to enhance the safety of aid workers in militarized settings?

January 11, 2007

What should aid agencies do to enhance the safety of aid workers in militarized settings?

The majority of aid worker victims (nearly 80%) are nationals of the country in question. The average number of national staff victims more than doubled between 1997 and 2005, from an average of 56 victims per year in the first half of the period, to 115 in the second.

In addition, in the six areas with the highest absolute numbers of violent incidents against aid workers in the past nine years (Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya/North Caucasus and the Democratic Republic of Congo), the relative risk to national staff appears to be rising significantly year to year, while that of international staff is declining.

Globally, the incidence rate for internationals is stable or declining, while it is growing for national staff. Overall, the analysis points overwhelmingly to a general trend wherein it is becoming increasingly dangerous for national staff and, surprisingly, safer for international staff.

Findings from field research and interviews with over 300 humanitarian personnel suggest that a large factor driving the higher casualty rates of national staff is a common program adaptation to insecurity known as "remote management" — or "long-arm programming."

In these situations, organizations withdraw or limit the movement of their expatriate staff members as security declines, while national staff and/or national partner organizations take on a larger share of the service delivery.

Organizations that do this typically assume that their national staff and partners face lower risk than internationals in these environments — an assumption the study found was often faulty.

Not only do many agencies fail to adequately assess the risks to national aid workers, they also provide nationals with a far lower level of security resources, including training and equipment, than they do expatriate staff.

The remote management approach, while common, is undertaken in a mostly ad hoc and reactive fashion. Remote management can allow vital relief operations to continue, yet it also creates a number of challenges.

Apart from the risk transfer to national aid workers, these include less efficient and strategic service delivery, the potential for corruption and accountability concerns.

Agencies generally accept that program quality will suffer under remote management, but have expended little energy towards identifying practices, planning and programming approaches that could mitigate its negative effects. Agencies have also largely failed to consider the ethics of transferring risks.

Viewed against the significant rise in risk to national staff, remote management raises serious questions for the international aid community — especially when the program in question is not a life-saving intervention.

What steps should the international community take to safeguard humanitarian relief work and workers in violent settings? Much needs to be done at the level of the aid agencies themselves.

It is imperative, for example, that aid agencies get better at reporting, recording and sharing information on security incidents to improve understanding of the trends and planning of response.

However, many remain reluctant to share information for reasons of liability and reputation. Given that national aid workers (local staff and partners organizations) are increasingly shouldering the risk burden in the most dangerous contexts, aid organizations must take greater efforts to assess and address the risk to these individuals.

Too often it is assumed that local staffers are less at risk because they are "of the place."

Experience has repeatedly shown this assumption to be faulty. Organizations must take on the responsibility to provide an equitable level of security inputs for local staff and partners, including proportionate representation in security training and briefings and the provision of security materials in national languages, as well as access to security assets.

Also, local staff and organizations can acquire the capacity to take over aid operations in a planned and safe way, rather than as an ad hoc response to international evacuations. This requires a long-term investment of resources and capacity-building efforts.

Donor governments, for their part, need to ensure that adequate resources are available for security personnel, training and equipment for the agencies that they fund to perform aid work.

They should also consider and address the implications of their branding policies, such as USAID's new stipulation that its fundees must clearly label their supplies and programs as a "gift from the USA" (part of the "hearts and minds" campaign) — even in areas where such visibility may be undesirable or dangerous.

Finally, host states have important responsibilities — and must be engaged in the issue. Governments that are seen to lack the capacity to safely host international aid operations lose still more credibility in the eyes of their populations and the world.

On the other hand, of course, the states — arguably, Sudan — that tolerate the international aid presence, but make little effort to protect it in the face of violence, can also send a message that interference within sovereign territory has its perils, and will be brooked just so far.

Editor’s note: You can read Part I of this feature here.