Killings, kidnappings and burnout: the occupational hazards of aid work

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - You’re an aid worker speeding back to base after a long, cold day questioning people who have fled fighting about what they need to survive. Out of nowhere a girl runs into the road and is knocked over by your driver.

A Red Crescent member inspects a damaged site after what activists said were air strikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Douma eastern Al-Ghouta, near Damascus January 25, 2015. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

Within minutes, your four-wheel drive is surrounded by bystanders. First they shout, then they start banging windows and rocking the vehicle. Before long they prise open the car door and pull your driver out. Some are armed. What do you do?

It’s perhaps the toughest dilemma aid workers face during their brief stint in war-torn “Badistan” - in reality, a training camp in the grounds of a golf course near Gatwick Airport where they are confronted with mass casualties, a minefield and gun battles in various role-play scenarios.

The three-day course run by security risk management company, International Location Safety (ILS), is one of scores aimed at mitigating the risks of working in the field where aid staff kidnappings have quadrupled since 2002.

The perils of the job came under scrutiny in November when a court in Oslo found the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) guilty of gross negligence and awarded damages to a former employee abducted by gunmen from a Kenyan refugee camp in 2012.

It was the first case of its kind to reach a court judgment, igniting debate over whether aid agencies would become more risk-averse as a result.

“There has been an increasing bunkerisation of aid workers who operate out of compounds and are restricted in where they go,” said ILS Managing Director George Shaw.

“It does worry me that it will continue to happen. But that would be a lack of understanding of what the (NRC) ruling means. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do high-risk programs. It means we should do high-risk programs safely.”


Michael O’Neill, a former director of global safety and security at Save the Children International and now deputy chair of INSSA, an international NGO safety and security group, said the NRC case made it clear that organizations could do better.

“It’s not enough just to write (a security risk management system) down on paper. It’s not enough just to say it’s there,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “If it can happen to NRC, then who among us is not vulnerable at some level?”

Convening the first World Humanitarian Summit on the biggest issues facing the delivery of relief, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on warring parties to respect and protect aid workers, as well as the wounded and sick, from attack.

The summit in Istanbul later this month comes as leading aid officials warn of ever-increasing humanitarian needs due to crises ranging from Syria’s conflict to climate change.

The year 2013 was the worst for aid workers with 460 killed, kidnapped or seriously wounded, according to Humanitarian Outcomes which has collected data on the topic since 1997.

Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan and Syria have gained a reputation for being most dangerous for aid workers, with the majority of attacks over the past decade or so occurring there.

Afghanistan alone accounted for 27 percent of those attacks between 2005 and 2014. But Somalia, with fewer aid workers, has seen an even higher rate of violence against humanitarians.

National staff are by far the most vulnerable. In 2014, they accounted for 90 percent of victims, roughly in proportion to their numbers in the field, Humanitarian Outcomes said.


Few believe all risks can be eliminated, but many agree that one of the most important ways to lessen them is to get the support of locals.

Too often aid workers are targeted because they are no longer perceived to be neutral. Wouter Kok, a security adviser for Medecins Sans Frontieres, said assuring all sides in a conflict of the agency’s impartiality is key to its security approach.

“We have to get back to that independence,” said Kok, who works for the Dutch arm of the medical charity.

“What we’ve seen in the last 10 to 20 years is that belligerents have tried to use humanitarian aid to win hearts and minds, and sometimes organizations have allowed themselves to be used,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Understanding the nuances of a conflict, the local culture and people’s motivations, together with strong negotiating skills, are also critical to mitigating risks, experts said.

Big organizations are increasingly aware that aid programs need to be designed with security in mind, INSSA’s O’Neill said. “Good programming and good security go hand in hand.”

For example, poorly designed food distributions can quickly turn ugly. But seeking the input of local communities, giving people a clear idea of what they will receive and setting up a complaints table away from the lines are some ways to reduce the risk, he said.

Caring for the mental health of aid workers is an overlooked but crucial aspect of keeping them safe, said Sara Pantuliano, director of humanitarian programs at the London-based Overseas Development Institute.

“The one thing that is forgotten the most is the levels of stress and trauma aid workers experience, and that is particularly true for local staff because they often have family affected by this crisis,” Pantuliano said.

“I think people don’t even raise the issue of being under stress or the threat of burning out or needing a proper break, needing to recuperate, because they may be accused of not being fit for the job,” she added.

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