Attacks on Aid Workers: The Case for Concrete Action

A Médecins Sans Frontières employee inspects the remains of a bombed hospital. Kunduz, Afghanistan, October 16, 2015 (Najim Rahim/AP)

In a critical number of conflict-affected countries, aid workers face persistent levels of violence. The latest numbers from the 2017 Aid Worker Security Report found that 2016 was no better than the year prior, with 288 aid workers having either been killed, kidnapped, or severely injured. Apart from a spike in 2013, the overall level of casualties has been fairly steady for the past decade. In 2016, the highest number of attacks occurred in South Sudan, followed by Afghanistan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Yemen. The perpetrators are state and non-state armed actors alike, and although many of the attacks are incidental in nature, over the past five years the Aid Worker Security Database has documented a consistent level of political and economically motivated violence.

Violence against aid workers has far-reaching consequences. In addition to being a violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the physical and psychological trauma that it has on workers and their families, it also has a direct effect on where humanitarian aid is delivered, and the quality of that assistance to those most in need.

This issue will be firmly in the spotlight on August 19, which marks World Humanitarian Day. This year’s event focuses on the #NotATarget hashtag, first developed by Médecins Sans Frontières after last year’s bombing of the Kunduz hospital in Afghanistan. The International Peace Institute also hosted a policy forum in March this year to examine the findings and recommendations from a set of recent studies which look at lessons from highly insecure settings like Afghanistan. Intensifying international attention and a growing body of research aims to assist aid organizations in mitigating risk and improving responses to the realities in which they operate.

The strongest empirical basis for the insecurity facing aid workers comes from the three-year Secure Access in Volatile Environments (SAVE) study—funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development—which we recently completed. SAVE explored how insecurity impacts humanitarian presence and how aid agencies are adapting, and sometimes making significant compromises, when attempting to deliver aid in dangerous places. We looked at the contexts of Afghanistan, southern Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria, and found that aid agencies have pulled back from the most insecure places in these settings, with a relatively small number of organizations remaining in the most dangerous locations or seeking access to new areas. This means there is not enough aid going to those most vulnerable in these countries. The aid getting through is also often very basic, such as food assistance and hygiene items, and rarely involves providing protection to civilians. We also found that donor governments have contributed to a reduced presence through counterterrorist regulations and other funding restrictions. The findings are highlighted in this interactive.

The SAVE study concluded that getting humanitarian access requires constant management of pressures, including requests for payment to armed groups and local authorities, favoritism in aid delivery, and taxation of aid recipients. Payments and compromises are common and widespread, but the sector has been reluctant to discuss them openly. This impacts the way all stakeholders, including taxpayers, understand what it takes to deliver assistance in these settings, and equally, the way risk is managed. Among a wide-range of recommendations, SAVE calls for a rethink in the way risk management is undertaken, with a more structured approach to assessing risks against the importance of each intervention, as well as a more integrated approach to sharing the responsibilities for residual risk with the donor governments that fund them.

A number of other studies released over the past year contribute to our learning on how to improve responses in highly insecure settings. MSF’s Emergency Gap report on insecurity concurs with the SAVE analysis and looks at the consequences of these challenges for security management. It argues that humanitarian organizations need to closely examine their institutional willingness to accept security risks and capabilities to manage them, and that better linkages to programming and operational decision-making are part of the solution.

The MSF report calls for the humanitarian imperative to be central to how the system is organized architecturally, and how aid agencies are internally governed, including decision-making on acceptable risk thresholds. It suggests that there is a need for the development of more assertive approaches to access in the toughest contexts, operationally and politically independent of the system. This is a potential way forward, but questions remain, including: Which organizations are willing to take on this task? And how do we ensure local aid agencies—which the SAVE study found act as front-line responders in the most insecure places—also receive the necessary investments in their institutional and operational capability?

At the inter-agency level, Presence and Proximity, a follow-up to the landmark To Stay and Deliver study was also released recently. It presents a critical and somewhat sobering analysis of what has been achieved five-years on. While “staying and delivering” has become a motto for many humanitarian organizations, and leaders are consistently talking of their intent to do so, persistent challenges remain and the reality does not match the rhetoric. United Nations-developed tools such as “program criticality”—a major contribution to managing security risk that prioritizes those most in need of assistance—need ongoing attention, adoption, and adaptation in field settings, including by non-UN actors.

The three studies mentioned above concur that conflict parties’ (including state and non-state actors) lack of respect for the fundamental tenets of IHL and the volatility of today’s armed conflicts mean that even with the most advanced mitigation strategies, the risk of violence remains, and that providing assistance and protection, particularly the latter, will continue to be challenging and dangerous. The risk is not that this isn’t acknowledged; it will be, as it always is, with calls from many powerful institutions and governments for more adherence to the laws of war and more accountability when those laws are flouted. But humanitarian actors also tend to move on after moments of advocacy and reflection, and return a year later to find that not enough has changed. These studies provide the humanitarian community with a deep empirical basis of evidence, and offer a consistency in findings across a wide range of contexts and aid actors. As such, the recommendations should be hard to ignore. Common to all three studies is a call for:

  • Greater operational transparency of humanitarian presence (access); and more strategic analysis of coverage gaps, and stronger leadership in finding ways to address those gaps.
  • Increased investment in the guidance and practice of negotiated access as a key enabler for operating in insecure settings. This includes the need for a greater understanding that it is not only acceptable under IHL to negotiate with all parties to the conflict, irrespective of their political designation. It is also a matter of operational security.
  • More flexible funding to enable organizations to operate with more operational independence in highly insecure environments. This is also likely to ensure better access and higher quality aid.

These and the many other important recommendations from recent studies provide a basis for action at individual, inter-agency, and governmental levels. It would be a tribute to those lives lost and affected by violence if they were taken up, and acted upon.

Adele Harmer and Abby Stoddard are Partners at Humanitarian Outcomes.