Aid worker attacks and attacks against civilian aid operations were at their highest levels last year, said Abby Stoddard, senior program adviser for humanitarian action at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a partner with Humanitarian Outcomes, an independent research group. Preliminary numbers show 172 major attacks on aid workers in 2013; the previous peak year was 2008, when there were 165 attacks.
More aid workers in the field is partially responsible for the increase in attacks, which are generally targeted attacks and ambushes. “Before 1990,” Dr. Stoddard observed, “you wouldn’t see many aid workers at all in active combat situations. They tended to wait at the borders for refugees.”
But, she cautioned, this is not the only reason for the increase. She noted that in some high-violence environments, aid workers are seen as linked with Western interests. “When you have an internationalized insurgency the way you do in Afghanistan… you see a greater targeting of aid workers because they are perceived to be associated with the Western agenda.”
“The majority of incidents for the past several years have taken place in just a small number of extremely high-violence environments, and for the past at least seven years, those have included Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan (and now South Sudan), and Pakistan. In 2013, Syria joined the top five in terms of the most attacks on aid workers,” she said.
She said there is no strong evidence of a correlation between increased attacks and areas where the United Nations plays a more aggressive role in the conflict, “but you do see anecdotally that it does affect the UN agencies.”
She said the UN uses a protective strategy towards security threats, using armed guards and armed escorts, for example, while NGOs focus on an acceptance approach, which involves reaching out to all parties to the conflict; reaching out to local communities; and actively and continually negotiating their presence.
“We found in our research that the agencies that were able to do this more effectively and able to invest more in an active acceptance strategy tended to have better success in maintaining secure access,” she said.
She said a recent report by Humanitarian Outcomes, which manages the Aid Workers Security Database, found higher aid workers attacks correlated with areas of armed conflict, but also high levels of state fragility and low levels of rule of law. Surprisingly, she said, they did not find any real significant relationship between aid worker violence and the general crime or murder rates in the country.
“It’s important to stress that there’s no way to eliminate the risk entirely, no matter what you do or how much money you spend on your security,” she added.
Despite assumptions that humanitarian actors have become more risk averse, she finds the contrary. “I think risk tolerance has actually gone up,” she said.
She noted that in the Central African Republic, “a lot of agencies were claiming security risks as one of the reasons why they couldn’t respond better to the emergency there, but I think the issue really had more to do with low capacity than with risk aversion.”
The interview was conducted by Jérémie Labbé, Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute. He tweets at @jeremie_labbe.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Jérémie Labbé: I am here today with Abby Stoddard, a partner with Humanitarian Outcomes, an independent research group on humanitarian issues, and Senior Program Adviser for Humanitarian Action at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Abby has extensively researched and analyzed international humanitarian action for the last 15 years, and is the author of numerous reports and articles, including on the issue of security of aid workers, the focus of today’s interview. Of particular relevance to our discussion, Humanitarian Outcomes manages the Aid Workers Security Database, which compiles incidents involving aid workers worldwide and publishes an annual report, the Aid Worker Security Report, providing the latest statistics and highlighting current trends. Abby, thanks for being with us on the Global Observatory.
A number of security incidents concerning aid workers were reported in recent months in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Somalia, and Mali. For that matter, two recent incidents happened in Mali. Five ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] staff were abducted in early February, and just this week, two staff from Doctors of the World (MDM) had a security incident with an explosive improvised device. So, is there an increase overall in the number of security incidents concerning aid workers?
Abby Stoddard: Yes, there is overall, and particularly this year. We’ve seen the numbers both of aid worker victims and the number of major attacks against civilian aid operations go up this year. They’re at their highest levels since 2008, which was the prior peak in violence.
JL: Your latest report, the Aid Worker Security Report, provides statistics for 2012. Are you talking now about 2013? And if so, do you see the same trend in 2013 and previous years?
AS: Yes, I should clarify—we track these incidents in real time; so the aid worker security database is updated every week. At the end of the year, in the subsequent year, we do a verification process where we double check and cross check and verify all of our incidents, and at that time we call them final. But we do have preliminary numbers for 2013.
JL: What are the main types of security incidents?
AS: Well, our database tracks only what we call major attacks on aid workers. So, that includes the outcomes of killings, kidnappings, and aid workers who are seriously wounded by deliberate violence. Now since 2009, the most frequent type of attack has been kidnapping. But we also break down the incidents further. We look at the means of violence, so whether there was a shooting or an abduction or a bombing, for instance. And also the context of the attack, so whether it took place on the road in an ambush, or an armed raid into a compound, etc.
Now, there’s a form of complex attack which we’ve seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is where there is an explosive used—usually by a vehicle-borne suicide bombing—which clears the outer perimeter and then you have a raid of armed gunmen going in. That’s the most lethal type of attack, generally, but thankfully, it’s also very rare.
JL: And I am wondering if all conflict areas are equally dangerous for aid workers? And that leads me to ask as well, what are the reasons behind these security incidents? Is it voluntary, or is it just accidental—being at the wrong place at the wrong time? Do you see some patterns?
AS: Well, the majority of incidents for the past several years have taken place in just a small number of extremely high-violence environments, and for the past at least seven years, those have included Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan (and now South Sudan), and Pakistan. In 2013, Syria joined the top five in terms of the most attacks on aid workers. They have in common, obviously, armed conflict. So that is generally the biggest driver of violence against aid workers.
There’s not a lot of collateral violence. You definitely—especially in Syria, where there is quite a lot of hostilities—you do see aid workers being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Aerial bombardments will be the cause of death sometimes. But generally, these are targeted attacks and ambushes that we see affecting aid workers.
We did—not our last report, but the report before that—we looked at some correlates of violence in the host countries, and what correlates closest to high numbers of aid worker attacks is, of course, obviously armed conflict, but also high levels of state fragility, low levels of rule of law. But interestingly, there’s really no significant relationship between aid worker violence and the general crime or murder rates in the country.
JL: Would you say that, overall, the environments in which aid workers are deployed are more dangerous? You mentioned that there are a few countries that are in the top five basically of the most [violent] environment context, but is it more dangerous overall to be an aid worker today?
AS: Well, that depends on the time frame that you’re talking about. It’s always been dangerous and difficult work. It’s often said that, before 1990, you wouldn’t see many aid workers at all in active combat situations. They tended to wait at the borders for refugees. The numbers of agencies and the numbers of aid workers they deploy have all increased in countries where there’s active conflict going on. So there definitely are more aid workers in the field, which is part of the explanation for higher numbers, but not all of it.
When you have an internationalized insurgency the way you do in Afghanistan—so it’s an internationalized civil conflict with an internationalized insurgency as well—you also have the anti-Western dynamic, where you see a greater targeting of aid workers because they are perceived to be associated with the Western agenda. But it’s not only in those types of situations. Any civil conflict where there is an armed insurgency, they have an interest in disrupting or diverting or punishing aid because they want to sew disorder and discredit the government. That is, until the time where they control that area, in which case they have an interest in allowing aid to come in for their own sort of public relations purposes.
JL: On the issue of the perception of aid workers—do you see some patterns of more security incidents, more targeting maybe of aid workers, in areas or countries where the United Nations plays a more aggressive role, a more partisan roll—a number of organizations being closely associated with the United Nations when they are not United Nations agencies or programs themselves? And I’m thinking here in particular about countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, or Mali, where the United Nations, the peacekeeping component, has a very strong mandate of support to the state authorities. Or the Democratic Republic of the Congo with their Intervention Brigade, where, basically, the United Nations peacekeeping is becoming a party to the conflict. So, is there a correlation there with security incidents and targeting of aid workers?
AS: I don’t think that we’ve seen strong evidence that there is a correlation, but you do see anecdotally that it does affect the UN agencies. I don’t think it does so much on the NGOs. But what you have certainly in Afghanistan now is two very different security approaches because the UN has been targeted more. So that effect does happen, but it’s the UN now that has armed protection, including close protection and armed escorts. They have highly fortified compounds, armored vehicles, etc., while the NGOs are taking the sort of opposite approach: very low profile, not branding, but seeking an acceptance strategy.
JL: I wanted to ask you what tools those organizations have to address this security threat. You already partly responded to the question: physical security measures versus more measures based on the acceptance of the organization in a given context. Do you think there are some measures that are more efficient than others? Do you see some organizations adopting specific ways to protect themselves being more successful in that respect?
AS: It’s important to stress that there’s no way to eliminate the risk entirely, no matter what you do or how much money you spend on your security. And as I mentioned, the UN takes the protective approach by using armed guards, armed escorts, etc., while the NGOs focus on an acceptance approach, which has to do more with reaching out to all parties to the conflict, reaching out to local communities, and actively and continually negotiating your presence—making sure people understand who you are, what you’re doing. And it takes a heavy investment, also, in situational awareness and reaching out.
So we found in our research that the agencies that were able to do this more effectively and able to invest more in an active acceptance strategy tended to have better success in maintaining secure access. So ICRC, for example, who not only have the historical mandate and the emblem and the reputation, but they invest very heavily in this negotiated access. But even the ICRC has been victims of an attack, so it shows you that no strategy is perfect.
JL: I would like to come back to a point you mentioned earlier, this correlation between the increased presence of aid workers in areas in conflict and therefore their greater exposure, which pushes the number up. This seems quite contradictory to what some qualify as the greater risk-aversion, as well, of aid organizations. And here I have in particular in mind Médecins Sans Frontières [MSF], Doctors Without Borders, that criticized a few months back the humanitarian community for failing to be present in Central African Republic precisely due to this risk aversion, considering that the environment was too complicated, too dangerous to be present. So what is your take on this?
AS: Well, first of all, I don’t agree that humanitarian actors have become more risk-averse. In fact, I would venture the opposite. I think there are past cases you can look at where one incident—one kidnapping or one explosion—would see a complete cessation of activities, maybe wholesale evacuations. People would react much more strongly to it. Nowadays, this happens all the time in Afghanistan and agencies carry on programming.
So I think risk tolerance has actually gone up. MSF is right that in Central African Republic, a lot of agencies were claiming security risks as one of the reasons why they couldn’t respond better to the emergency there, but I think the issue really had more to do with low capacity than with risk aversion. I think in many cases, agencies simply didn’t have the resources to respond, and there were cases of citing the UN, saying that they declared this a no-go area or other things when security wasn’t so much the issue as low capacity. It’s been a neglected emergency for many, many years and I think that’s what you are seeing in CAR.
JL: Well, Abby, thank you very much for being with us today.
AS: Thank you.