In October 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy, then on the last lap of a campaign race that landed him in the White House, issued a famous challenge to students at the University of Michigan: “How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?” Fifty years later, everyone from Bono to the Pope is calling for more aid to poor countries, which in turn implies more aid workers.
But this is not your parents’ aid work. What today’s idealistic young people are not told is that over the past decade foreign aid work has become a high-risk occupation in an unregulated and increasingly dangerous international industry. While data on aid worker mortality is poor, the data we have suggests that if aid were a domestic U.S. industry, aid work would follow deep-sea fishing and logging as the third or fourth most dangerous occupation.
To be sure, some aid workers abroad are still dying from illnesses and vehicle accidents. But over the past decade, violence has become the number one cause of death of humanitarian aid workers. An ongoing study by the research group Humanitarian Outcomes has been tracking security incidents in which one or more humanitarian aid workers were harmed. The year 2008 saw the highest number of such incidents on record; in 2009, there were fewer incidents overall, but that year was nevertheless the most dangerous on record for international staff. The number of kidnappings continued to increase, up 50 percent from the previous year. Because the Humanitarian Outcomes study focuses on humanitarian aid workers, it omits other workers in the aid industry, such as road-building engineers. Were these types of workers included, the number of security incidents would be even higher.
U.S. government employees in dangerous environments are smothered in security protocols that require them to live in protected areas, restrict their travel, or require travel with military escorts. Training programs for U.S. government employees cover topics such as first aid, surveillance detection, evasive driving and weapons familiarization. However, aid projects are not implemented by U.S. government employees. Most front-line aid providers work for private organizations—either contractors or non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—and are not subject to the same restrictions, do not have the same resources to ensure their own security and are generally not eligible for government security training. In most countries, aid workers live or travel among the populations they seek to serve. Many are “local staff”, meaning that they and their families are nationals and permanent residents of the country. Without much training or protection, aid workers are easy to assault, kidnap or kill. Front-line aid workers are quintessential “soft targets.”
While the number of humanitarian aid worker deaths overall is not large, the numbers are startling when viewed as percentages. The 2008 data show that the chances of humanitarian aid workers dying by violence were almost six times those of U.S. police officers. Unlike police officers, however, few aid workers have any training or equipment for self-protection; indeed, many are deeply conflicted about whether and how to protect themselves.
The increase in security incidents is due in part to changes in patterns of aid allocation. More aid to dangerous places means more aid workers in dangerous places. Three-quarters of the security incidents studied by Humanitarian Outcomes took place in a handful of conflict-affected countries. Afghanistan and Iraq feature on that list, although they do not head it; Somalia, Chad, Sudan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are also hot spots. From 2004 to 2008, aid to these countries doubled.
However, aid workers are not simply victims of opportunistic violence in dangerous places. Rather, the study found that the majority of violent incidents appear to be politically motivated, with aid workers targeted not by bandits but by political groups. That aid workers would become targets seems almost inevitable given the nature of the current conflicts with insurgents and terrorists. Unlike conventional wars fought between rival states over territory, insurgencies are fought to establish legitimacy and thereby to control the government of a population. This is one reason why both insurgents and counterinsurgents often deliver humanitarian and development aid to contested populations, politicizing aid delivery. By the very fact of their work, aid workers in such environments are either advancing or impeding the agenda of one of the combatants.
All a Blur
In the wake of 9/11, afraid of budget cuts for aid programs, many aid donors and recipients insisted on the continued relevance of aid, claiming a link between poverty and terrorism. In 2002, President George W. Bush included “development” along with defense and diplomacy as one of the “3 Ds” in the National Security Strategy of the United States. Both the West and its enemies have come to see Western foreign aid as a “soft power” tool.
The inclusion of development in the National Security Strategy did not just mean the hope of budget increases for civilian aid agencies such as USAID. Because of the history of underfunding the civilian agencies and their inability to meet the needs in the conflict zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Department of Defense began to provide substantial assistance for reconstruction and stabilization, humanitarian and even development aid, and began to build new capacities to do so. Military and civilian agencies also increased their efforts at coordination, including joint planning, intelligence sharing and training activities.
The consequence has been to blur the line between civilian aid workers and combatants abroad. Military teams, sometimes wearing civilian clothes, are developing improved water sources or building schools in countries such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia and the Philippines. Provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq and Afghanistan embed civilian government aid workers with troops. Development contractors are explicitly carrying out the work of the U.S. government. NGOs financed by the U.S. government are now expected to further U.S. foreign policy objectives within counterinsurgency campaigns.
More broadly, the military has been seeking ways to work with NGOs and leverage their capacities, whether financed by the U.S. government or not. The CIA considers NGOs to be intelligence resources and is speculating out loud about whether they can be made to do more. This trend is not limited to the U.S. government. In 2008, NATO floated the idea of the “Civil-Military Fusion Centre” to facilitate information sharing between NGOs and the military.
The recasting of NGOs as a “soft power” tool of U.S. foreign policy, a “force multiplier” for U.S. combat forces and a valuable source of military intelligence poses a particular problem for NGOs that see themselves as humanitarians adhering to the principles articulated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). These principles are impartiality, or the provision of service according to need without discrimination; neutrality, or not taking sides in a conflict; and independence, or resisting pressure from outsiders. For these NGOs to allow themselves to be used by one of the combatants in a conflict would be to undermine their core principles, while to allow themselves to be perceived to be used would undermine their legitimacy and effectiveness. Finally, it could put aid workers at risk, jeopardizing the protections they might otherwise claim under the law of war as non-combatants and humanitarian workers.
Some NGOs are resisting cooperation with the U.S. military to preserve their independence, integrity, effectiveness and security on the theory that insurgents can and will distinguish them from combatants if they keep their distance. However, there is a real question as to whether those norms, always somewhat unevenly implemented, and developed when countries met each other on battlefields with their armies, can survive or be made to apply to conflicts with non-state actors. It is not clear under what circumstances distancing increases NGO security or instead creates and telegraphs vulnerability. In the worst conflict areas, NGOs need the security provided by one or more of the combatants to reach the neediest populations safely. Last year, workers for the ICRC on a mission to inspect a jailhouse in the southern Philippines were advised of the uncertain security situation, declined the offer of a military escort on the grounds of neutrality, and were promptly kidnapped by a terrorist group.
The increased risks facing aid workers have prompted several efforts to improve worker security. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee, a forum for both UN and non-UN humanitarian organizations, has developed guidelines for staff security. Security guidelines have also been developed by the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a U.S. government agency that seeks to facilitate cooperation on security matters between the U.S. private sector and the Department of State.
Some larger individual contractors and NGOs have also taken steps, hiring professional security coordinators, developing security plans, creating a budget line for security in their projects, offering more-than-nominal security training to their staff, and providing psychosocial support. Some have hired armed guards and escorts to protect staff under certain circumstances. Others prefer a security strategy that depends on gaining acceptance by combatants and the community so that combatants will not see the need to target aid workers and community members who value their work will protect them. Still others have pulled international staff out of harm’s way, leaving national staff to operate projects on the theory that they will be safer than foreigners. However, in 2009 humanitarian worker security incidents involving national staff outnumbered those involving international staff two to one.
Overall, the response at the level of individual contractors and NGOs has been uneven. Larger organizations are better resourced and better able to absorb the overhead costs associated with taking security measures. Many small and medium-sized organizations, meanwhile, lack the resources, expertise and information to take steps to protect staff. In lieu of providing security or worker training, many employers seek staff or contractors who already have field experience, which is unjustifiably presumed to give the worker security expertise and to let the employer off the hook. The insistence on prior field experience makes it hard for new aid workers to land their first field assignment and so deters them from complaining about working conditions or treatment, opening them up to exploitation by negligent or unscrupulous employers.
For the U.S. aid industry, the incentives to improve worker security are weak. Voluntary guidelines remain, well, voluntary. Measures to promote worker safety increase administrative overhead, lowering the ratings of charities and increasing the costs of contractor bids. At the same time, there is little legal protection for employees and subcontractors. Laws designed to ensure workplace safety for employees and government contractors do not apply to workers overseas. The Defense Base Act immunizes employers from suits by employees injured or killed while working overseas on government contracts; for other suits, courts have to be persuaded to take jurisdiction over events that happened abroad. And while USAID may require its private partners to submit a security plan, the agency does not approve, vet, evaluate or enforce the implementation of such plans. Indeed, it can be difficult for aid workers to learn what the contents of their employers’ security plans are, or what if any security measures have been promised on their behalf.
Most individual aid workers remain uninformed about the new levels of risk and the weakness of their legal protections. The culture of aid prizes can-do machismo, but most have yet to assume responsibility for acquiring and maintaining skills appropriate to working in dangerous environments. They may lack basic skills in first aid or even the ability to drive a manual transmission vehicle. Very few possess the more specialized skills offered to some of their government counterparts in situational awareness, risk assessment, surveillance detection, evasive driving, kidnap survival, weapons familiarization, self defense or escape-route planning. Locally hired staff are even less likely to have access to such training than international staff.
Denial, ignorance, negligence and machismo are all costly. Aid workers who fail to take their own security seriously put their coworkers, subordinates and program beneficiaries at risk. While international staff are usually better protected than national staff, they are also more likely to be in supervisory positions where poor judgments have greater consequences. When aid workers are kidnapped and quietly ransomed, ransom payments fund attacks on others. According to counterinsurgency expert Justin Richmond, payments for the release of the Red Cross workers kidnapped in the Philippines in 2009 financed attacks on U.S. troops stationed there. “We saw an immediate uptick in IED [improvised explosive device] attacks”, Richmond said.
The increased rate of security incidents is due to problems in a handful of conflict countries, including countries where both aid workers and soldiers are engaged. Do the challenges of aid delivery in these countries represent a limited case or a glimpse of the future of aid? The latter seems more likely, particularly for the United States. With the exception of the 1990s, U.S. aid has always been tied to conflict, first to the Cold War, and then to the Global War on Terror. The inclusion of development in the National Security Strategy means that official aid funding will continue to be channeled increasingly to conflict environments. At the same time, the U.S. military is building new capacities in reconstruction and stabilization and discussing their deployment to dozens more countries.
While some NGOs are fighting to maintain distinctions between combatants and aid workers, or between humanitarians and others, these boundaries are collapsing and are likely beyond resurrection in a new era of warfare. With so many actors engaged in similar tasks—soldiers, military contractors, civilian government aid workers, civilian aid workers embedded in military units, development contractors, development contractors owned by military contractors, development NGOs, humanitarian NGOs, multi-mandated NGOs who do both development and humanitarian work at the same time or by turns, NGOs who are also government contractors—it would be difficult for even conscientious combatants to tell who would be entitled to protected status without the help of a team of lawyers and accountants. The targeted attacks on aid workers suggest that insurgents are not even interested in attempting to draw this difficult distinction, nor are terrorists, by definition. What then must be done to protect aid workers?
For U.S. aid workers, government action is needed. The outsourcing of foreign aid that began twenty to thirty years ago has spawned a private foreign aid industry. In the current conflicts, the government has pulled back government workers to protected areas, leaving these private workers exposed while publicly presenting them as intelligence sources and conflict “force multipliers.” Contractors and grantees should have some responsibility for the safety of their workers, and the government should ensure that they have the incentive to take these responsibilities seriously. Contractors and grantees should be publicly audited for worker safety, because it is impossible for aid workers to get information on their current or prospective employers’ security plan or safety record. Organizations that fail to meet minimum standards for worker safety should not continue to be financed through tax dollars.
Ultimate responsibility for the security of aid workers, however, rests with aid workers themselves. They need to come to terms with the fact that they have chosen a hazardous profession and take personal responsibility for their own security. It is unfathomable that a person would offer himself to work in difficult regions without such skills as situational awareness, basic first aid and the ability to drive a car. Training in weapons familiarization, surveillance detection and evasion—skills offered to U.S. government personnel working on reconstruction and stabilization—is appropriate for aid workers working in areas in conflict or with high crime rates. Aid workers have an obligation to inform themselves of risk, to acquire and maintain skills appropriate to a hazardous occupation and to carry good long-term disability insurance. In order to be in a position to care for others, they must first care for themselves.