Global Policy Forum

Why Western Aid Workers are Coming Under Threat


As more western aid workers become targets of attack, western aid organizations are increasing security measures and halting specific aid operations. This Guardian article asserts that these attacks are the result of a larger problem where western aid is seen as having political, rather than humanitarian, motivations.  Unless western aid organizations acknowledge the ‘false’ neutrality of aid, these attacks are likely to continue or worse, increase.

By Simon Reid-Henry

May 27, 2011

Around the world, more aid workers are being killed, kidnapped or attacked than ever before.

In April, seven UN staff were murdered in northern Afghanistan when their compound was stormed by an angry crowd. The attack was part of the widespread anger sparked by American pastor Terry Jones's burning of the Koran.

And just last week an American aid worker, Flavia Wagner, who was abducted and held for three months in Darfur in 2010, filed a lawsuit against the NGO that sent her there on the grounds that they had insufficient contingency plans to deal with the threat of kidnap.

The experience of Wagner and the tragic deaths in Afghanistan are part of a much wider pattern: aid, it seems, has become a dangerous business. This was the verdict of aid expert Mark Duffield in a public lecture at Queen Mary, University of London, last week.

Lethal attacks on aid workers have grown from around 30 a year in the mid 1990s to over 150 in 2008. They have grown primarily because in countries from Sudan to Pakistan, Chad and Papua New Guinea, aid and humanitarian organisations are seen as ever more complicit with state militaries and a western liberal intervention agenda.

In response, the western aid industry has been digging itself into ever more fortified bunkers and compounds. In an approximation of the Green Zone strategy that the US military deploys in Baghdad, it is refusing to accept that there are times when it is offering the wrong solutions in the wrong way and at the wrong time.

Duffield, the author of Development, Security and Unending War, has over 30 years experience in the field, and captures the trend in a neat example. When, in the 1990s, a Taliban provincial governor threw a coffee pot at the head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, the result was an almost immediate withdrawal of the entire mission for several months – even though the coffee pot failed to find its target. By contrast, when Linda Norgrove was killed last year (albeit unintentionally, by a grenade thrown by the US military team sent in to rescue her), the result was a raft of public pronouncements redoubling commitments to "stay the course".

It is this almost Victorian steeling of resolve – or what in security industry jargon is known as "resilience" – that he argues is driving the "bunkerisation" of the aid industry. It is one of the most substantial and least recognised changes taking place in the aid world in recent years.

Of course, you don't see the fortified buildings with double-skin walls, security guards and barbed-wire topped perimeter fences in any of the glossy brochures put out by aid organisations. They want their donors to see how much of their money is going to local communities. But rest assured, the compounds are there: a vast network spreading across the globe. Refusing to budge. Unable to do much good either. Is this the future of aid?

The UK Department for International Development (DfID) certainly acknowledges, in a recent review of its humanitarian aid, that its ability to help is being hampered by "the rising security threat faced by humanitarian workers … and the increasing difficulties they face in accessing affected populations".

But the two problems are not unrelated. And Duffield believes that, above all, it is the current "integrated mission" focus of the UN that has done for the once assumed neutrality of western aid. It piles aid and political goals into the same interventionary pot so as to shape development more directly around the foreign policy interests of donor nations.

Hence, in part, such retaliations as the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad in 2003, precipitating yet another round of defensive digging in, and greater demand for dedicated security officers, safety and protection by the aid industry.

Of course, someone like Flavia Wagner would likely argue that all aid organisations should be much more security-focused. But the ongoing securitisation of development is also having negative consequences for aid and development practice. One of these is the current shift in aid policy from the doctrine of "when to leave" to the more resilience-based doctrine of "how to stay" (or "stand and deliver" as Duffield aptly puts it). With such a mindset, it is not hard to see why many recipient countries find western aid looking more and more like the colonial exploitation it was intended to make amends for.

It is not hard to see why it is becoming ever more difficult for aid-workers to do what they got into the industry to do. How can they, Duffield challenges us to consider, in a world where they are taught in countless security training courses: "If you see an accident, don't stop, think carjack!"


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