Aid Worker Safety and Security: At What Cost?


    Aid Worker Security

    2018 was the fourth most dangerous year on record for aid workers according to the annual Aid Worker Security Report released in June by the non-governmental organisation Humanitarian Outcomes. According to a Humanitarian Outcome’s Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD) report,126 aid workers lost their lives because of violence last year.

    The report attributes the increasing impunity of state and non-state actors to the rise in deaths, with little safeguarding for protection or justice. Last year was also the second worst year for aid worker security in terms of absolute number of attacks, with 399 aid workers affected by major violence in 221 separate attacks.

    • In 2018, 143 aid workers were wounded and 130 were kidnapped; Two-thirds of the attacks occurred only in five countries: South Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic
    • The most common attacks were shootings in South Sudan, aerial bombing by state forces in Syria, and kidnappings in Afghanistan
    • Over 90% of aid workers killed or injured in 2018 were nationals of the country where they worked
    • According to the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition, at least 973 known attacks on health facilities and personnel occurred across 23 countries in 2018; over 30% if these attacks were in Israel and the Occupied Territories
    Aid Worker Security

    Targeting women

    Specifically, the 2019 Aid Worker Security Report examined sexual violence and variable risks for female versus male aid workers. It claims that while better reporting is being seen on the issue, underreporting on sexual violence continues to be a limitation.

    The main findings are the following:

    • Male aid workers are three-to-six times more likely to be attacked, but sexual violence principally affects women.
    • For all years of the AWSD (21 years), 29 victims of sexual violence were all female, a number considered artificially low because of under-reporting; sexual violence was used in 8% of all attacks involving women.
    • Data on sexual violence is weak across the sector; gender-based risk management strategies are based on assumptions without empirical support.
    • Sexual violence poses particular challenges to risk management because the threat can be both internal and external to the organization.

    The report recommends putting direct and explicit attention to this issue to mitigate the escalation of the risk of more serious violence. It also advocates organizations to be more proactive for the removal of obstacles to reporting incidents. In 2019 the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF), an NGO consortium, and the United Nations published new guidelines on managing sexual violence recommending an ‘empowered bystander approach’ to lessen the burden of responsibility on potential victims for preventing violence.

    “A growing trend of attacks”

    Earlier this month, in response to the escalating violence against aid workers, the United Kingdom International Development Committee issued a report to the Department of International Development (DFID) called “Tackling violence against aid workers”. In the report, the parliamentary select committee of the House of Commons calls on DFID to take the lead in ending violence against humanitarian workers, including “building international consensus on how better to enforce humanitarian law, but also investigating how diplomatic pressure can be applied against states who hold it in such disregard.”

    The Chair of the International Development Committee, Stephen Twigg said, “whether through targeted acts of violence or indiscriminate bombing; we are witnessing a growing trend of attacks” and “on the ground, we need to work with local communities to build trust and end suspicion of the purpose of aid programmes.”

    Aid Worker Security

    On the front lines 

    As of now, the outlook for 2019 does not show an improvement over last year and the situation has deteriorated elsewhere. Particularly, aid worker security incidents are on the rise in sub-Saharan Africa with nine deaths, 13 kidnapped and 17 wounded so far this year according to the AWSD.

    High-profile incidents in the last month give cause for alarm. For example, on 18 July in Nigeria, the Islamic State West Africa Province attacked a convoy of vehicles in Borno State that was transporting staff from the French NGO Action Against Hunger, killing one driver and kidnapping five others. On 28 July,a 25-year-old member of the international NGO Plan International, who helping displaced household affected by the conflict, was shot and killed by Myanmar security forces in Rakhine province.

    One point is clear, the nature of aid work has changed. What used to be humanitarian responses to natural disasters are increasingly responses to rising violence across the globe. This then puts more lives at risk and most for those on the front lines and in the crosshairs.

    Image: Albert Gonzalez Farran / NRC / F2F Africa (link

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