Hard Times for Aid Workers

Stephen DeAngelis

August 28, 2008

Beyond the occasional advertisements pleading for donations, we seldom hear or think about the thousands of aid workers laboring around the globe to relieve suffering caused by poverty, manmade crises, or natural disasters. Even less often do we think about these people as being heroes. Yet relief workers toil in difficult and often dangerous situations, including areas embroiled in conflict. Historically, relief workers have been permitted to perform their activities in relative safety because they were recognized as non-combatants. As a result, the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for which these aid workers labor eschewed contact with the military because such contact was believed to taint their work and increase the risk their workers face. Although that remains essentially true today, there is more cooperation between militaries and NGOs because NGOs found themselves increasingly caught in the cross-fire during the numerous crises of the 1990s. Since then, according to Samantha Power, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, things have only gotten worse [“For Terrorists, a War on Aid Groups,” New York Times, 19 August 2008]. Normally I write more about development than relief (and there is a big difference in focus), but the development process often emerges from relief operations. Without relief operations, development programs often remain stillborn. Hence, the success and safety of relief workers should be a concern for anyone interested in helping eliminate poverty around the globe. Professor Power begins her op-ed piece with the story of some unsung heroes in Iraq.

“Five years ago … in Baghdad, a suicide bomber in a flatbed truck pulled up outside the lightly fortified office of the United Nations’s leading diplomat, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and detonated a cone-shaped bomb the size of a large man. The bomb was laced with hand grenades and mortars, and it carried more than a thousand pounds of explosives. Its force was so fierce that it shook the American-controlled Green Zone, three miles away. While many United Nations officials were killed instantly, Mr. Vieira de Mello was not. For more than three hours, he lay trapped beneath the collapsed roof and floors of the three-story building, as he asked about the fates of his colleagues and complained about the pain in his legs. Although the Bush administration had not equipped American forces to respond to large-scale terrorist attacks on civilian targets, several soldiers heroically risked their lives to save him, submerging themselves in the sweltering, crumbling wreckage. But without proper equipment, they were forced to rely on their hands and helmets, along with a makeshift pulley system constructed out of a woman’s straw handbag and an office curtain rope. Mr. Vieira de Mello died, as did 21 other people from 11 countries. Among the dead were experts in conflict resolution, humanitarian assistance and development work. More than 150 people were severely injured. Survivors of the attack and devastated colleagues branded the day the United Nations’s 9/11.”

As Power points out, workers from international organizations and NGOs who have been injured or killed are likely not to have been “collateral damage” but deliberate targets. The reason is that most of the crises involving conflict in which aid workers get involved are civil wars. That means that when they help people from opposing factions, they are no longer viewed as impartial and compassionate — they become part of the conflict. Power claims that “the individuals who carry out vital humanitarian and development work for the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations have never been more at risk.” Although aid workers have tried desperately to remain apolitical, they have been caught up in spreading logic that condemns all such organizations as tools of the West. Powers continues:

“The Baghdad bombing made it clear that the United Nations and humanitarian groups had moved from the 1990s, when their flags no longer offered them protection, to a phase in which their affiliations made them outright targets of Al Qaeda and other violent extremists. Al Qaeda and other groups have said that the United Nations is a priority target. In November 2001, Osama bin Laden declared, ‘Under no circumstances should any Muslim or sane person resort to the United Nations. The United Nations is nothing but a tool of crime.’ Last year, Al Qaeda specifically denounced the humanitarian agencies of the United Nations as ‘direct enemies aiming to change the fabric of Muslim society.’ United Nations officials have recently received specific threats in Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia and Sudan. In December, a Qaeda suicide strike in Algeria killed 17 United Nations workers and injured another 40. The after-action report on the Algeria attack sounded helpless: ‘The U.N. is under an extremist threat. The threat could be carried out anywhere at any time. There is no U.N. capacity to predict attacks.’ Mr. Vieira de Mello’s political team had come to Iraq in 2003 in order to hasten the end of the American occupation, but this proved to matter little to a man known as Abu Omar al-Kurdi, who helped Al Qaeda plan the attack. ‘A lot of Islamic countries have been through injustices and various occupations and foreign troops using the U.N. resolutions,’ he said afterward, referring to the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council. By this logic the 140,000 unarmed, civilian personnel who do political, humanitarian, development and human rights work for the United Nations would be blamed for the Security Council’s actions and inactions (over which these civil servants have little say).”

In early August 2008, more aid workers were killed in Afghanistan and the attackers made it clear that they placed aid workers in the same group as coalition and Afghani military forces.

“The killing of the aid workers in Afghanistan … showed how aid groups … are being lumped with Western governments and military forces. In claiming responsibility for the attack, the Taliban posted a statement on the Internet saying it held the three Western women responsible for NATO’s killing of 50 civilians in a wedding party in July. United Nations officials and aid workers who choose to work in conflict zones have always exposed themselves to banditry, crime and violence. But the assaults, kidnappings and killings of humanitarians have more than doubled in the past five years — precisely when independent humanitarian, reconstruction and development assistance has been urgently needed in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Having made her case about the dangers faced by aid workers, Power rhetorically asks what can be done to improve the situation. She then provides three answers:

“First, in some places where local authorities are unable to prevent Al Qaeda and other violent extremists from operating, the United Nations and other aid organizations may have no choice but to reduce their physical presence. The Bush administration bypassed the Security Council before the war in Iraq, so Europeans governments and Secretary General Kofi Annan wanted to send Mr. Vieira de Mello and the United Nations’s ‘A-Team’ to Baghdad partly to remind the world of the organization’s continued relevance. After the Aug. 19 attack, the United Nations and aid organizations must have more tangible, urgent reasons for placing unarmed civilians in the most dangerous parts of the world. Often humanitarian groups are doing life-saving work, but too often they succumb to pressure from local governments, who want to demonstrate that their countries are safe for foreign investment, and from big donors, who have pet causes that don’t always merit risking the lives of workers. Already, many United Nations agencies and nongovernmental organizations have rightly started to ‘nationalize’ their foreign field operations by sending conspicuous Westerners home. More than 75 percent of United Nations personnel around the world are local nationals. … While this is a positive trend, 80 percent of United Nations civilians killed in the last 15 years have been local staff. Their welfare must generate the same urgent debate over security trade-offs as that of their international colleagues.

“Second, the 192 countries that are part of the United Nations must spend substantially more money on security for the organization’s missions. Before the Baghdad attack five years ago, member states consistently resisted making significant investments in United Nations security. Some believed the terror threat was a mere construct of President George W. Bush, while others believed nobody would dare target the United Nations. It is shocking to note that the after-action report on Al Qaeda’s attack in Algeria last year pointed to many of the same financial constraints and managerial dysfunction that undermined the security of the United Nations mission in Baghdad five years ago. … The General Assembly must vote to have security for field missions paid by regularly assessed dues rather than by voluntary contributions.

“And finally, while many global terrorist networks cannot be deterred, their plans can be thwarted when international organizations and aid groups get the cooperation of their host countries. Often the safety of unarmed humanitarians will be determined by whether a host country will deny sanctuary to militants, share intelligence with humanitarian groups, or offer protection to their facilities. When the host country ignores requests for high-level security assistance, as Algeria did last year, the United Nations should be prepared to suspend its programs or to withdraw altogether. In collapsed states where the host government has only partial control of its territory, that host still has a duty to share what information it has and to be explicit about the gaps in its knowledge. And when United Nations-mandated international security forces are sent, the world’s governments must contribute the troops, equipment and intelligence they need to deliver professional service.”

As Power concludes, simply withdrawing relief workers from hazardous areas is not an answer. Even if such a withdrawal was mandated, many heroic and dedicated relief workers would ignore such mandates in order to continue their humanitarian activities. Answers to providing security are not easy. Using local security forces risks creating or supporting local warlords or gangs. Using commercial security forces (like Blackwater) creates other challenges and encourages the growth of mercenary organizations. Using local or foreign military forces risks further politicizing humanitarian activities and could actually increase the risks to relief workers. Historically, the use of blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers has been the best answer; but a recent lack of discipline among peacekeepers has dramatically devalued their acceptability as well. Despite these challenges, the answer is not for the international community to throw its hands in the air and give up. The challenge of providing security to relief workers deserves more attention from creative minds as well as more commitment from concerned countries. Pride and ethics need to be reinstilled in the work peacekeepers perform. Too often peacekeeping missions are simply seen as a way for third world countries to use their militaries to obtain money from the international community to be used to buy more arms. Peacekeepers are often ill-equipped and poorly trained. A professional peacekeeping force instilled with moral integrity and highly disciplined could improve security and protect relief workers as well as the victims of conflict. Until the international community comes to grips with this problem, relief workers will remain at risk.