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World Humanitarian Day: counting the costs

Written by Eva Svoboda

Local aid worker deaths in the spotlight

As humanitarian organisations venture further into the frontlines to deliver medical care, food and shelter, the cost of aid work has risen. These costs are not only financial – but human in nature. On World Humanitarian Day, August 19, we are reminded of the importance of the security and safety of humanitarian aid workers, both local and international.

Attacks on aid workers have steadily risen over the years, from 90 violent attacks in 2001, to 308 incidents in 2011, with the majority of attacks directed towards local aid workers.

Local and national aid workers face different security concerns than international aid workers. Perhaps due to the belief that local aid workers are more able to blend in with the population and have a better understanding of the issues, they are sometimes placed in more dangerous situations.

We spoke to a local aid worker from the Federally Administrated Tribal Area in Pakistan, on the Afghan-Pakistani border, who chose to remain anonymous for security reasons:

The area I work in is host to many militant and terrorists groups. The biggest threat that we face as aid workers in the FATA region is from the various religious and militant groups that are not in favour of NGOs. Since we work on human rights issues some see us as ‘agents of the West’ and sometimes as a potential threat to the marginalised and vulnerable groups we are trying to help, like women and minorities. Kidnapping for ransom, torture and killing are some of the common threats to NGO staff, and family members of these aid workers are also threatened at times.”

Paul Biel, Director of Nile Hope Development Forum, a local NGO operating in Jonglei State, South Sudan shared his views about security and safety of local staff:

“International agencies need to make local aid worker’s safety a priority. Local aid workers can be targeted for being of a different ethnic group from the one they are working in. Or if they are working in an area of the same ethnic group when there is an attack on the community, they can also be targeted. These are not problems that international staff face. Another challenge is donor limitations – many don’t want to pay for health coverage so when an aid worker is killed there’s not even anything to help support his or her family to survive”.

Local aid workers make up nearly 80% of fatalities on average since 2001. These graphs, with data from the Aid Worker Security Database, illustrate the human cost of aid work – particularly on local aid workers.

Local aid worker safety and security should be a key priority of all agencies working in conflict zones. Security within dangerous environments is by no means easy, but aid agencies should ensure that risk assessments are continuously updated, staff – both local and international – are adequately trained, and measures are put in place to support staff and their families when incidents occur.