Photo credit: Catalina-Martin Chico/European Commission DG ECHO/Flickr
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.”
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.