In Conflict Zones, Aid Gets Defensive

By David Lepeska

The end of humanitarian innocence arrived with a bang on August 19, 2003, when a truck bomb gutted the United Nations’ Baghdad headquarters, killing 22 staffers and wounding more than 120. There had been gruesome and deadly attacks on aid efforts in the past, but none had been so devastating and pointedly directed. The blast tore off the building’s façade, exposing its guts to the dusty city. Parts of desks, chairs, and bodies were strewn about the grounds of what had so recently been the Canal Hotel.

Among the dead were Special Representative and highly regarded career humanitarian Sergio Vieira de Mello and a host of selfless and determined young Arabs. Then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said the attack “brought us face to face with danger in a new and more intimidating form.” It also removed any lingering doubt about the sanctity of the humanitarian space and irrevocably altered the aid security dynamic.

Even so, the Baghdad bombing was just an exclamation point in a steadily building drumbeat. Major attacks on aid workers more than doubled from 1999 to 2005, according to a joint study by the British government-supported Overseas Development Institute and New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Even adjusted for a considerable increase of field workers over that span, the incidence of attacks per 10,000 workers rose more than 50 percent. The report, “Providing Aid in Insecure Environments,” also found that aid workers were attacked more for political than economic reasons. “The perception that aid workers are associated with political processes clearly exists in the minds of local belligerents,” the authors state.

As the line between humanitarian and military activity has blurred aid worker security has eroded along with neutrality, jolting humanitarian actors into action. Some of their security decisions have raised ethical questions about equal treatment for all national and international staff. This report dissects what international development organizations have done to adapt, which strategies have been most successful, and what still needs to be done.

Shifting Policy, Coordinating Security

Within weeks of the Baghdad bombing, the United Nations pulled 600 staffers out of Iraq and assumed a lower international profile, as did the International Committee of the Red Cross. Their share of attack victims has decreased considerably in the past five years, the aid worker security report found, but progress towards entrenching adequate security in policy and planning has been fitful.

On the plus side, the U.N. and Interaction, a consortium of U.S.-based NGO’s, have each created Minimum Operating Security Standards, which have been broadly mandated and widely applauded. Furthermore, in 2006 the U.N. joined together with a network of non-governmental organizations to enact a security framework called Saving Lives Together.

Interaction Security Coordinator John Schafer related a tale of the project’s effectiveness. When the Democratic Republic of Congo erupted in violence this past summer a U.S. citizen found himself stuck alone in his compound after local staff left to take care of their families. “Fighting was continuing the whole time,” recalled Mr. Schafer. “It was right outside his gate – there were bodies in the street.”

The American field worker called the U.S. embassy, which told him there was nothing they could do as their doors had already been locked. He called the local U.N. peacekeeping mission, which told him they didn’t know where he was. Finally he called his own headquarters, which in turn contacted Mr. Schafer, who called the head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations at U.N. Headquarters in New York and gave him the field worker’s position. The U.N. relayed the American’s position back to the field and UNDPKO quickly mounted a rescue mission and saved the worker.

The entire process took six hours, during which Schafer kept up the aid worker’s spirits via Skype chat and used Google maps to pinpoint his location. Mr. Schafer was pleased with the result but acknowledged that Saving Lives Together was more Plan B than anything else. “We can talk all we want about the importance of having security plans on the ground but when the actual emergency hits rarely is it within the parameters of what we planned,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to have a little bit of flexibility in our plans.”

Other efforts have been less successful. As part of the post-Baghdad bombing shake-up the U.N. created the Department for Safety and Security in 2004, which replaced the Security Coordination Office, established in 1988. The new department was given higher-level leadership, additional resources, and tasked to create a new and innovative vision for defining, assessing, and enhancing security for its own and other humanitarian operatives.
Reports of UNDSS have been unfavorable. “Many complain that operation restrictions remain the principal security strategy used by the U.N. in many field-settings,” says the ODI study, adding that the department suffered “from considerable distrust among international NGOs, both in terms of capability and intent.”

Programmers and policymakers have long wanted a database in which to report, record and analyze attack incidents and security failings. Used universally, such a tool would offer a wealth of invaluable security and planning information. But initiatives such as UNDSS’ Security Incident Reporting Service have fallen short of expectations. “It looked like we were about to get going with this universal shared database of incidence and analysis but it’s just completely stalled,” Abby Stoddard, senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation and the ODI report’s lead author, said in an interview. “It hasn’t gotten up and running, either at the U.N. or through NGOs.”

Nationals in Harm’s Way, Ex-Pats Far Away

Inevitably, the burden has fallen to international NGOs to provide field security, which, according to the industry bible, Koenraad Van Brabant’s Operation Security Management in Violent Environments, is marked by three elements: protection, deterrence and acceptance. The first means reducing vulnerability, the second involves presenting a counter-threat, and the last is about cultivating positive relationships with locals.

For example, Somalia is one of the world’s most high-risk humanitarian environments. An ODI backgrounder advocated community-based strategies yet noted that such practices are often ineffective because “local authorities do not accept national staff members, but want to interact directly with leading expatriate staff.” And with only a few locations accessible for internationals and a heavy reliance on nationals, such interactions seem unlikely anytime soon.

In a perfect world strategies would stress acceptance, but growing security concerns often render acceptance-heavy strategies too costly and difficult to implement. In such areas some aid groups take extreme steps, such as removing all identity markers from facilities, staff, and vehicles to maintain an ultra low-profile. Others take the opposite tack, arming staffers and fortifying offices or hiring military protection. “Both of these approaches can compromise security,” write Ms. Stoddard et al. “Once an organization has confined its staff to a compound, accepted military protection or adopted clandestine programming, its access to security information becomes extremely limited.”

In high danger zones most actors have kept the aid flowing by localizing their efforts. “The way they’ve done this is through remote management, where they will have their national staff or other national organizations that they’ve subcontracted to, or private contractors, do the work,” Ms. Stoddard said in an interview. “The plus side of that is more aid getting to more people because they’re operating.”

Reliance on national staff in the most dangerous and distant aid environments is not new. Oxfam used what some called “long-arm programming” over 50 years ago in India and others employed similar techniques in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Afghanistan throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In theory, such practices decrease risk. But Ms. Stoddard says these practices mean less efficient delivery, a loss of strategic focus, and increased corruption and accountability concerns.

Yet remote management has boomed. Overall, field-based international staff dropped 20 percent from 1997 to 2005, and some of the bigger humanitarian organizations went much further: international field staff for the U.N., CARE and World Vision hovers around three percent today. Most local staff, or foreign nationals, work without adequate training, resources and support. “It’s very uncommon that you would leave them your radios, that you would give them training, that you would give them any of the security assets that you would have,” said Ms. Stoddard.

As a result, national staffers have been left twisting in ever more dangerous winds. While total aid worker victims rose from 66 in 1999 to 211 in 2006, the number of international victims dropped while national victims jumped four-fold. Moreover, of 83 aid workers killed in 2006, 78 (94 percent) were nationals. “What they are doing is abdicating their responsibility for protecting people that work for them,” said Mr. Schafer, pointing out that life insurance payments are considerably lower for a national worker.

Ms. Stoddard explained some of the reasoning behind remote management. “These are local organizations that are doing this work anyway,” she said. “It’s employment for one thing but also they have incentive to help and to partner with internationals… The nationals haven’t really thought through what it means ethically. They’re more concerned with, ‘we want to keep the aid flowing.’”

Protecting Your Own

Although remote management is problematic, it does do precisely that. And because building local capacity has long been a key goal of humanitarian work there is little debate about the utility of nationalizing aid and relief. It simply has to be done better. “The true definition of security is providing it for the entire community,” said Mr. Shafer, referring to internationals and nationals as well as their friends and family. “There can’t just be an evacuation plan only for your ex-pats.”

Ms. Stoddard concurred. “There needs to be some way of assessing what risk you’ll be putting these nationals in,” she said. “They have different vulnerabilities than international staff – that has to be part of your risk assessment. I haven’t seen any evidence that people are now looking at their national staff and coming up with better remote management strategies.”

Conor Foley, a veteran aid worker writing a book about humanitarian aid, said many NGOs were increasing training and resources but that these improvements had been generally ineffective. “Security has become a buzzword,” he said. “But it’s been a bit un-thought out.”

Recently, a major NGO bid on a $300 million USAID project in Pakistan without consulting their security director about the budgeting. “The problem is most people don’t have the systems in place to even make educated decisions on what is acceptable and unacceptable risk for their organization,” Mr. Schafer said. “They don’t have a management system for their security program.”

Thus, many key questions are left unanswered. What is the line of acceptable risk, for instance, and how do you draw it? How much will aid delivery cost you in a higher threshold of risk? What security info are you gathering to quantify the security situation, make programming decisions and put together an operational plan? And if you pull out, how do you assess risk and game plan for nationals, as opposed to internationals?

Because the security risks are not assessed beforehand there’s no funding leeway in the event of a worsening security situation. “First and foremost the NGO’s have to develop systems internal to their organizations,” said Mr. Schafer. Once funding had been tied into security, he added, donors would fall in line.

One hopes they appreciate the urgency. In late October, CARE International’s Battagram, Pakistan compound was riddled with machine-gun fire mere hours after the office of a nearby NGO was bombed, wounding eight Pakistanis. Unknown gunmen attacked and shot dead two Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development staff in Uganda’s Amuru district on Halloween.

In late November unidentified gunmen shot up a Medecins sans Frontieres car in south Sudan, killing four. And in early December top U.N. aid official John Holmes visited Somalia, the world’s most high-risk humanitarian environment. “It is very hard for aid agencies to operate in Somalia because of the general security situation,” Holmes told reporters. He pointed out frequent checkpoints, at which aid workers were harassed and halted, and sharply curbed operations overall. “We need to do more.”

Indeed, multilaterals, aid groups, and donors need to better adapt to a world in which humanitarians wear bullseyes and another Baghdad bombing constantly looms. Adapt, that is, or continue losing ground.

-- posted on devex.com on 17 March 2008

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