With civilians functioning as both “militarized” actors and strategic targets in modern-day conflicts, the relief activities of humanitarian organizations in war-torn regions have become increasingly politicized. Factions targeting civilians view any kind of aid to these civilian “opponents” as supporting the enemy. These factions see the provision of resources and assistance to those in need as materially supporting, and therefore taking a side in, the conflict.

This viewpoint clashes with the “provide aid but take no sides” credo of most humanitarian relief organizations. Worse, this politicization of aid may cause the individuals representing agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the ground to become strategic targets in the conflict. Hostile factions attack local and international NGO and agency representatives in the field to acquire more goods and services and to keep aid from reaching the civilian population targeted by that faction. In addition to robbery of supplies and destruction of aid infrastructure, NGO representatives may be terrorized or killed in an attempt to drive out relief organizations from the conflict zone and dissuade aid providers from operating in the region. In some conflict areas, foreigners are automatic targets and therefore especially dangerous to deploy in the field. For the most part, however, local organizations and staff suffer the majority of the violence directed against humanitarian workers.

When examining the often precarious roles of humanitarian organizations on the ground in modern conflict zones, questions arise about the increasing rate of attacks on relief organizations, specifically who is being targeted and why. This study will utilize existing research on conflict and the role of relief organizations to frame a necessarily brief look at some of the dangers and difficulties challenging aid providers, both local and international, on the ground. Power and policy structures shape the perceived role of aid and may lead to attacks on agencies and NGOs, while political, cultural, socioeconomic, and ethnic realities and motives can influence both the decision to attack and the choice of target.

This study will focus on two cases of violent, politically motivated attacks against humanitarian organizations, one in Sri Lanka and one in Afghanistan, raising questions and making some necessarily limited observations about current trends in the attacks on humanitarian personnel. A complete discussion of the wide array of security measures utilized by the hundreds of humanitarian organizations and agencies in the field will not be attempted as it is beyond the scope of this examination. This study will conclude with a brief review of a selection of relevant policy suggestions that may be of use to NGOs and the Obama administration.

Facts and Figures

The most comprehensive study available on the vulnerability of aid workers is the Humanitarian Policy Group’s (HPG) report number 23: “Providing Aid in Insecure Environments: Trends in Policy and Operations.” This two-year study of attacks on aid workers provides comprehensive data on the total number of relief personnel operating in the field, as well as the absolute and relative numbers of deliberate, violent attacks against both local and international staff from 1997 to 2005. The report is the first to obtain an accurate, data-based estimate of the total number of aid workers deployed in the field for the time period examined; previous studies listed numbers of attacks but were not able to analyze relative trends. Mani Sheik, one of the authors of a study entitled “Deaths among Humanitarian Workers,” which was published in the British Medical Journal on July 15, 2000, explained that “without denominators for field staff—which few organizations could provide—we could not calculate risks or rates, making it difficult to ascribe the increased number of deaths to increased risks.”

While the data set does not include 2006, a year in which a particularly large number of attacks took place, the analysis in “Deaths among Humanitarian Workers” reveals some surprising and important trends.

Although absolute numbers of attacks increased exponentially from 1997 to 2005 (nearly doubling in the nine years), the number of aid workers in the field also increased by an estimated 77 percent. As a result, the relative frequency of incidents is only slightly higher now than at the beginning of the study period, although absolute numbers have risen sharply. There were five attacks per 10,000 aid workers in 1997 and six attacks per 10,000 aid workers in 2005. In total, 408 acts of violence, resulting in 941 victims and 434 fatalities, took place during the nine-year time frame.

National or “local” staff accounted for 79 percent of all victims from 1997 to 2005—a staggering majority. Mani Sheik also noticed this bias toward national personnel in his team’s research covering the time period 1985-1998: “The ratio of deaths among nationals to those among expatriates was 4:3. Most relief organizations report usual staff ratios in field operations of 7:1 or 8:1. Deaths of nationals are probably underreported.” Upon the quantitative basis provided by the HPG report, I will build a preliminary analysis of whom these attacks target, and why.

Politically motivated attacks increased by 208 percent over the time period analyzed. Violent attacks executed as part of a robbery or for personal gain are common, but their numbers have not increased as rapidly as politically motivated assaults. This statistic lends quantitative support to the idea that aid organizations are, by their very existence and activities, major political actors and therefore considered valid military targets in many conflict zones. The implications of this for future humanitarian interventions are many and complex, and though a full treatment of them falls outside the scope of this study, a brief discussion of some policy options will be included in the conclusion.

The Myth of Neutrality

Mary Anderson’s handbook Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace—Or War, is a seminal work on the unintended negative impacts of humanitarian aid. Anderson acknowledges that neutrality, while striven for in the boardroom and constantly emphasized in organization mandates, is rarely the reality when humanitarian groups engage on the ground: “When international assistance is given in the context of a violent conflict it becomes a part of that context and thus also of the conflict.” In order to analyze the question of why humanitarian organizations, especially local NGOs and aid-workers, have been increasingly targeted over the past ten years, it is essential to understand why they have become legitimate strategic targets in the eyes of some combatants.

Although motive is notoriously difficult to determine, the HPG undertook a limited analysis in their report. Of the 408 incidents reviewed, they determined that 13 percent were truly unintentional casualties, where aid workers were not the intended targets, but rather accidental collateral damage in an attack aimed at other persons. Then they analyzed 159 incidents, or slightly over one-third of the total number of attacks, “where a reasonable judgment as to motivations could be made based on details from the reports and perceptions of those on the scene.” Of those 159 attacks, “only 28 percent (fifty-eight incidents) were motivated exclusively by economic factors.” Regarding the other 59 percent, the report states: “The remaining 101 incidents, while some may have included the seizure of goods/money, also had significant political elements.” However, this analysis is far from conclusive, as it eliminates almost two-thirds of the original dataset, where motive was impossible to determine.

It is important to note that attacks on humanitarian relief workers comprise only a tiny percentage of the vast numbers of casualties in the places where they work. While over forty-five humanitarian workers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2002, this must be analyzed in a context in which thousands of civilians were killed and wounded and many more displaced. Additionally, aid workers are far from being the primary military targets in any conflict zone. Usually opposing factions, invading military forces or enemy government representatives are a field strategist’s main priorities.

It is also important to understand that none of the possible motives listed below are backed by substantial quantitative data. Rather, they are indirectly deduced from the sociopolitical contexts of conflict, from the types of attacks that have occurred and from scattered reports. It is difficult to determine the exact motive behind violent attacks. It is impossible to know all the reasons for an assault in a chaotic war zone. If no witnesses are left to tell the tale, investigators cannot even determine the perpetrators’ identity. There are likely as many motives as there are battlefields, so this study will only raise a few general possibilities here.

There are numerous reasons why a military actor might attack humanitarian staff. Attacks may be carried out in an attempt to seize goods for the attackers’ own use, to prevent enemy civilians from benefiting from aid, to drive an international presence out of an area and assert control over the region, or to send a message to the government, the international community, or another faction. Differences in objectives, context, and the nature of the conflict may result in attacks for very different reasons.

As Anderson points out, it is naïve to cling to abstract concepts of neutrality when the simple presence of a humanitarian organization in a war zone makes it partisan to the conflict. As the line between military troops, guerrilla forces, bandits, and civilians blurs in contemporary war zones, even the act of providing food or health services to civilians may be enough to lead opposing factions to target aid-workers. This is especially true if the civilians receiving the aid are part of a political, ethnic, geographic, religious, or linguistic group that is associated with, or perceived to be associated with, a specific faction in the conflict. An example of this is how Sri Lankan government forces consider Tamil-speaking refugees to be synonymous with the Tamil Tigers; in this case, forces could consider the provision of humanitarian aid as a type of direct support for the rebel group.

Combatants may also view humanitarian organization ties (through donors) with enemy countries as a valid reason for at-tack. This is especially true when armed forces from the donor countries are present as in the case of U.S. government-funded organizations operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. In these cases, regardless of the difference in activities, international humanitarian organizations, in particular their foreign staff, are often viewed to be assisting occupying forces and are considered enemies to be driven out and eliminated. However, all available data show that attacks on humanitarian personnel, international or national, in countries with significant UN or coalition military presences do not occur at a higher rate than in other conflict zones.

Perceived connections with local/national governments may also make aid workers more vulnerable to attack. Diplomacy generally demands that government employees and humanitarian staff interact. Senior staff members often have the responsibility of ensuring that the government continues to allow and support a humanitarian presence in their country. They also form a part of the economic elite. For these reasons aid personnel may attend the same state functions, meetings, and social gatherings as government representatives and state military leaders. These interactions between ruling elites and humanitarian aid personnel may cause combatant factions to view humanitarian staff members as being politically close to or even synonymous with the ruling government. Groups fighting the state may consider this interaction between government representatives and humanitarian organizations as suspect (especially if they are excluded from it), and label the organizations, their staff, and operations as enemies and tools of the state. This can lead to targeting of aid workers as part of a larger attempt to destabilize or delegitimize the government.

There are other reasons why humanitarian organizations are targeted. The aid enterprise often reinforces social inequalities in conflict-zones. The perpetuation of structural violence can help set the stage for further conflict and paint aid workers as good targets for both politically and economically motivated attacks. As Peter Uvin famously points out in his book Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda, the majority of development aid dollars actually go to salaries for international staff and elite (educated, European language speaking) locals, the purchase of vehicles, and the rental or construction of relatively luxurious homes and offices. The same can be said for the humanitarian relief industry. Most humanitarian aid workers have easy access to both the basic necessities and luxury items that the majority of local people around them lack. The humanitarian aid industry is often one of the biggest economic players in the country or region of operation, providing one of the most visible signs of wealth in war-stricken regions in the form of new vehicles, electronics, homes and offices, and the possession of seemingly endless quantities of food, clothing, and money. Thus, factions seeking to feed and clothe their fighters regularly attack and rob humanitarian organizations, often injuring or killing aid workers in the process. While these attacks may be economically driven, the results are political, as the supplies obtained directly support combatants in the conflict.

This disproportionate economic power, however unintended, has extremely negative consequences for both civilian aid recipients and aid workers when relief programs themselves inadvertently contribute to violence by exacerbating tensions and conflict. The establishment of a massive food program, for example, can undermine local agricultural economies and production, as markets are flooded with huge quantities of cheap food imported from abroad. The end result deprives farmers of their only livelihood, and creates a population that has become wholly dependent on food handouts from the humanitarian aid industry. The resulting loss of pride and dignity, the disempowerment, and the growing resentment toward the aid workers responsible may lead to increased conflict and targeting of aid workers for both economic and political reasons.

In conclusion, there are many possible reasons why combatants in the field may target humanitarian aid organizations and their staff. These can be broadly divided into groups based on economic and political motives, although significant overlap exists between the two. Economic motives drive the robbery of food, clothing, money, electronics, vehicles, and other equipment for combatant use—for transport and to fund arms purchases and continued fighting. Politically motivated actions vary widely. They often include, but are not limited to, driving humanitarian organizations out of a region or country to prevent interference in the conflict or reports on human rights violations; attacking international or national personnel seen as representing an enemy state, faction, or occupying force in order to send a message to local, national, or international actors; challenging the authority of occupying forces and their associated agencies and NGOs; and disrupting the flow of aid and material goods to civilians seen as the enemy.

The Choice of Target

A stark trend revealed by the HPG’s report is the particularly precarious situation of national or local staff members. As stated previously, the most recent data available (1997-2005) indicates that absolute numbers of attacks on humanitarian aid workers have almost doubled in the past nine years, due to a huge increase of personnel in the field. At the same time, the relative numbers of assaults have only risen from five to six per 10,000 aid workers. However, in 79 percent of those attacks the victims were citizens of the country where the incident took place. According to the HPG, “their risk relative to international staff is increasing in most violent contexts.”

This trend, according to the HPG report, is partially due to an increasing use of nationals in countries where it is considered too dangerous for expatriate staff to operate missions. These are usually war zones, like Iraq, where foreigners are particularly vulnerable to attack for political reasons. In these places, international staff members often run aid programs from safer neigh-boring countries, using local staffers to execute the projects on site; this technique is known as “remote control.” The logic is that locals will blend more easily and not suffer from the same level of targeting that highly visible international staff have experienced. This line of thinking appears flawed, as combatants have attacked local aid workers in increasing numbers. Mani Sheik’s research also revealed a bias toward attacks on national staff. He reported that of the incidents reviewed in his study “217 deaths (58 percent) were among national or local staff and 160 (43 percent) among expatriates, with nationality unknown for five (1 percent).” Unfortunately, the numbers are not reliable enough to determine if the relative percentage of violent attacks against national staff members has risen between 1985-1998 and the 1997-2005 time period covered by the HPG report.

As mentioned in the previous section, violent attacks against humanitarian workers may be carried out for a wide variety of reasons. Why national staff members (representing both international and local humanitarian organizations) have suffered an especially high rate of attack is not fully understood, and motives probably differ from one conflict-zone to another. One reason may be because international aid workers increasingly avoid the most dangerous war zones, using local staff in their stead. In that case, national aid workers may simply be the only targets available to a combatant looking to disrupt humanitarian activities on the ground.

Expatriate staff members also benefit from more extensive security arrangements than their local counterparts. International organizations regularly ignore the security needs of local colleagues. They formulate evacuation plans for equipment and expatriate workers, but not for nationals, and provide only international field staff with personal security resources (secured housing and transport, etc). Farahnaz Karim, noting the large numbers of Afghani aid worker casualties, observes that “the level of security resources invested in protecting expatriate staff has been disproportionately higher, and may have been misplaced.” These reasons help explain why attacks on local relief workers have risen dramatically “in absolute and relative terms” over the past several years while the incidence rate for international staff “is stable or decreasing.”

Case Studies: Sri Lanka and Afghanistan

Recent examples of violent attacks against humanitarian workers can be found in two countries, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. While both nations are in a state of conflict, their respective cultural, political, and social environments are quite distinct. One of the main differences is clear: Sri Lanka has not been invaded and occupied by a foreign coalition force, as is the case in Afghanistan. Despite regional interest from India, the Sri Lankan conflict remains a civil war between two local factions. Afghanistan has a long running, multiparty civil dispute aggravated by foreign occupation and a weak government. The result is a particularly chaotic environment that cannot be considered “post-conflict” despite declarations to the contrary. Religious issues and the drug trade are other factors that feed the Afghani conflict. The cultivation and export of opium pits regional warlords against each other, the government, and occupying troops, in a fight for control of key economic resources. Religious rule by the Taliban may be considered a thing of the past, but violence still occurs between Sunni and Shiite sects, and fundamentalist rhetoric and arms move easily between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other neighboring countries. Meanwhile in Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers’ secessionist movement threatens to divide the country.

However, the following similarities exist between the two conflicts: conflict and division along ethnic/linguistic and religious/sectarian lines; a high level of internally displaced persons (IDPs); a large number of international refugees; organized and engaged diasporas; widespread attacks on and targeting of civilians; and explicit targeting of humanitarian field staff for both economic and political reasons.

The cases presented here are far from representative of every violent attack in the field. Reviewing the scant details regarding their occurrence raises many questions that cannot be answered. Data is scarce, eyewitnesses are few and biases are many. Interviewees in Farahnaz Karim’s study on Afghanistan “highlighted the need to look at incidents on a case-by-case basis to reveal the multiplicity of factors at play.” Mary Anderson notes in Do No Harm that every conflict is unique. It is important to apply these observations to all the bold generalizations made in this present study and its source documents. Without empirical data, it is impossible to make definitive statements about the motives or objectives behind any, or even these two, attacks. Without knowing for sure who the perpetrators were, it is even more difficult to deduce why the incidents occurred. Therefore, it is recommended that these cases be accepted as limited examples of some of the more extreme incidents of relief worker targeting in the field today.

Sri Lanka: The Trincomalee Massacre

Sri Lanka has been mired in a bloody and prolonged civil war since 1983. The basis for the conflict arises out of a history of extreme oppression and structural violence. Both the British and the majority Singhalese ruling elite have actively discriminated against Sri Lanka’s Tamil-speaking minority since the end of the nineteenth century. The civil war is between two main parties: the majority Buddhist Singhalese speaking government and the minority Hindu Tamil rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers). Multiple cease-fires have been signed and peace talks attempted, but the civil war continues today, having claimed almost 65,000 lives in the past thirty years. Currently almost 1 million people have been internally displaced by the conflict and a primarily Tamil diaspora is spread across the globe. After the failure of a cease-fire signed in 2002, the war resurged in 2005-2006 as Tamil and government forces waged intense battles for control of towns and districts, resulting in heavy civilian casualties and widespread displacement.

On August 4, 2006, seventeen Tamil-speaking staff of the international NGO Action Contre La Faim (Action against Hunger International, or ACFIN) were executed at their office in Muttur after the town became the center of a fierce battle between LTTE and government troops. This attack stunned the world, especially when international members of the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission claimed that government forces perpetrated the attack. A widely discredited investigation launched by the Sri Lankan government resulted in inconclusive findings.

ACFIN is a French NGO that was founded in 1979. It has grown into an international relief network of five organizations operating in many countries around the world. According to ACFIN, it “relies on the skills of hundreds of international experts and over 6,000 local (national) staff to develop programs that are well adapted to the needs of its beneficiaries.” The ACFIN network has been active in Sri Lanka since 1996, operating programs to help those affected by the war and, after 2004, by the tsunami. In 2006, ACFIN was implementing hygiene and water sanitation projects for internally displaced persons in Muttur, near the main town of Trincomalee. ACFIN had its main regional offices in Trincomalee, where three foreign and fifty local staff members were headquartered. The sixteen Hindu Tamil and one Muslim staff members killed in August included water and sanitation experts, engineers, agronomists, and project managers.

The assassinations of the ACFIN staff brought to the forefront issues of NGO security and government impunity. Humanitarian NGOs, aid agencies and donors were forced to once again take a serious look at their security tactics and question their individual and collective capacities to avoid tragedy. Hard questions were asked about the why and wherefore of the killings. To date, few have been satisfactorily answered. The first question to arise regards motive: why were these seventeen aid workers summarily executed? This query immediately brings us to the mystery of who was responsible. Without knowing for sure who the killers are, it is almost impossible to guess their motive. Even if the perpetrators were identified, they could have acted for many different reasons. If government forces were responsible, they may have killed the workers out of anti-Tamil sentiment since they were seen as in-directly aiding the Tamil Tigers through their aid projects. Another government motive could be to pin the murders on the LTTE to further demonize the rebel group in the eyes of the international community, making government abuses seem paltry by comparison. Conversely, if it was the LTTE who committed the crime, they may have hoped to pin it on government forces, thereby de-legitimizing the military and the Sri Lankan government in the eyes of the international community. It could even have been a third party taking advantage of the chaos to seek vengeance for a perceived slight. However, it is impossible to know for sure why the killings occurred and who the perpetrators are. While there is some consensus that government forces were the likely culprits, even this is not certain, and no dependable information is available regarding possible motivations for the incident. If anything, this case illustrates how difficult it is to determine motive when every detail of the attack is shrouded in silence and there are no eyewitnesses.

Observing the basic details of this incident, it is clear that they fall well in line with previous data collected in the HPG report for the period 1997-2005. All seventeen victims were Sri Lankan nationals and all were explicitly targeted for what appear to be political reasons. Simply robbing the house in Muttur where ACFIN staff had their offices would have been easy to do without lining up fifteen aid workers in a row on the ground, shooting them in the head, and killing two others who may have been trying to escape. There are other questions that have not and cannot be answered about this brutal attack. All but one of the victims were ethnically Tamil, and their water sanitation project was serving mostly Tamil persons who had been displaced by the conflict. While the ethnicity of the aid workers could be irrelevant to their murder, it is also possible that it motivated the killings.

This brings us to our central question regarding attacks on aid workers: who is targeted, and why? If these local staff members had been Singhalese speaking, would they have been summarily executed? If they had been expatriate staff, would they have been treated as brutally? Or would the would-be killers worry about international reprisal measures and leave them alone? Without a better understanding of the complex nature of national staff vulnerability, there can be no definite answers to these questions.

Afghanistan: The Afghan Help Development Services (AHDS) Ambush

Afghanistan’s current conflict is extremely complex, with multiple warring factions, occupying nations, and contested territories. In the last forty years, Afghanistan went from two centuries of monarchy, to a contested communist regime supported by the USSR, to invasion by Soviet forces in 1979. By 1980, fundamentalist Islamic factions fought to oust the Soviets and topple the communist government. In 1989, the last Soviet troops left the country, complying with international accords signed in 1988. Over the next eleven years, various fundamentalist forces vied for control of the country, including the Taliban, who grew in power and military success from 1994 until 2000 and controlled most of Afghanistan. Invasion of the country by Western coalition forces occurred on October 7, 2001, after the September 11 World Trade Center attacks. Currently, the Taliban and other regional factions (including non-Afghani militias) are involved in ongoing conflict against the Afghani government, the U.S.-led coalition force Operation: Enduring Freedom (OEF) and the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is comprised of thirty-seven countries. According to the latest available data from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), as of October 2005, more than forty-five humanitarian workers, both Afghans and internationals, had been killed in Afghanistan since 2002. This number reflects the fact that Taliban forces increasingly target civilians in their bid to regain control of the country. The majority of aid workers killed have been Afghani nationals.

On October 12, 2005, eight members of the humanitarian organization Afghan Health and Development Services (AHDS) were attacked in the volatile Kandahar region of southern Afghanistan. All eight were members of a mobile medical team. While the team was heading to a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), two insurgents on a motorbike attacked their vehicle. The insurgents opened fire on the passengers and threw a hand grenade at the vehicle. Five AHDS staff members were killed and three wounded. AHDS is an Afghani NGO, established in 1990 to help rebuild Afghanistan’s health care infrastructure and provide basic medical services to needy Afghanis. The organization has worked closely with the UNHCR, providing health care services to IDPs at camps across Afghanistan. Although the NGO is local, donors include USAID, the European Community, the UN, and several large international humanitarian NGOs. At the time of the attack, the medical team was heading to Talo Qan, a camp for internally displaced persons, in the Panjway district of Kandahar.

Unlike the Trincomalee massacre, few details are available to the public about the identity and affiliations of the victims, other than their status as medical aid personnel (doctors and nurses) working for AHDS. This type of attack is commonplace in Afghanistan, where military, government, and agency vehicles in transit are often targeted by insurgents. As a result, the incident did not receive the widespread media coverage granted to the Sri Lankan killings. Additionally, no international body or high profile investigation was launched to determine who the perpetrators were, as in the case of Sri Lanka. Perhaps these reasons account for the fact that, although three people survived, sources describing the identity or affiliation of the attackers are impossible to find. It is more likely that there was no way to determine which of the various factions the perpetrators belonged.

Similar attacks have been carried out specifically targeting agency and NGO vehicles. In May 2003, an Afghan Development Agency (ADA) automobile was attacked, killing one employee and wounding another. According to the director of ADA, Abdul Radik Samadi, “There were many other vehicles on the road, but they attacked our car when they saw the logo of the NGO.” It is quite probable that AHDS was explicitly targeted for being an NGO. However, even that is not certain, as it is also possible that one of the passengers was targeted for personal reasons. Even if it was unequivocally determined that AHDS was attacked for political reasons, this still does not answer the question of why they were being targeted.

Policy: What Has Been Done?

Many policies have been implemented to stem the tide of attacks on humanitarian aid workers. A few are briefly reviewed here and several key actions are suggested that NGOs can take to increase staff safety in the field. First, however, it is worth revisiting two central questions regarding the increase in attacks on humanitarian aid workers in the field: who exactly is being targeted and why are they being attacked?

The HPG report shows that while overall attacks on humanitarian relief personnel have only risen from five to six out of 10,000 worldwide in the past 10 years, 79 percent of the victims were national aid workers. In the six regions of the world with the highest level of violent attacks against humanitarian workers, attacks on local staff have increased in both absolute and relative terms in comparison with international staff casualties, which have declined. This shatters long-held perceptions that local staff members are generally safer than international aid workers when operating in particularly dangerous regions. Another trend revealed by the HPG report is an increasing risk for employees of NGOs in comparison with intergovernmental institutions such as the United Nations (UN). NGO field staff “have endured increasing numbers of these incidents in absolute, relative, and proportional terms.” It is clear that while the risk in the field is great for any humanitarian aid worker, NGO workers and nationals operating in their country of origin are more likely to suffer an attack. Both the Sri Lankan and Afghanistan cases involved local aid workers employed by an NGO. More recent attacks show a similar trend. The policy suggestions outlined here focus on NGOs for the simple reason that their field personnel, especially national staff, are more vulnerable than members of inter-governmental agencies such as the UN.

The second problem is the question of motive. Why are humanitarian aid workers, especially those working for NGOs in their countries of origin, being attacked? In both the Afghanistan and Sri Lanka cases, there was a lack of credible eyewitnesses, which illustrates how motives are often obscured behind a web of misinformation and lies. In many cases it is difficult to identify who, out of a multiplicity of possible actors, committed the assault. It is an equally complex problem to determine why the perpetrator decided to target the persons attacked. This review raises multiple questions that only a detailed investigation of each incident and an intimate knowledge of historical, socio-cultural, political, and economic contexts could hope to answer. In each case, the contexts of the incident may provide some clues or rule out possible reasons for the assaults. Even with these clues, attacker motive remains one of the most elusive factors relating to humanitarian field staff security.

Within the humanitarian relief community, in recent years many policies and procedures have been formulated and implemented to deter would-be attackers and increase the overall safety of aid workers in the field. The benefits of these policies have accrued especially to international staff. The security measures can be broken down into three main types: acceptance, protection, and deterrence. Each takes a different approach to the problem of field staff safety.

Acceptance activities try to reduce the vulnerability of NGO staff by increasing local acceptance of the organization, its work, and its employees. Image management, relationship building with local leadership and communities and a strong awareness of socio-cultural, economic, and political contexts form the backbone of most acceptance policies. These activities directly address the question of motive and the complex reasons for aid worker targeting. They are meant to ensure that armed factions do not consider the NGO a legitimate military target and have less reason to attack field staff.

Protection activities do not address the motives behind at-tacks on NGO aid workers. Instead, they employ field procedures and protective devices to reduce staff vulnerability. The use of body armor and helmets, armored cars and convoys, housing international staff in secure and defensible compounds, and using national staff in areas where the risk for foreign aid workers has been deemed too great are all common protection strategies. If the environment becomes too dangerous, foreign staff members may be evacuated to their country of origin. Local field workers are normally expected to fend for themselves. Protection strategies do not ensure long-term security for field staff; instead, their focus is on mitigating immediate safety threats.

Deterrence activities are similar to protection strategies in that they do not seek to address the source of the threat to field staff. Unlike protection activities, however, deterrence activities employ counter-threats to deter potential attackers. For example, one popular deterrence strategy is hiring local or foreign armed guards to patrol organization property, protect the houses of foreign staff members and provide security to staff riding in NGO vehicles. Deterrence strategies are often controversial and do not represent a long-term solution to security problems.

Some deterrence “solutions” have been especially problematic. In recent years, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, some U.S.-based NGOs received protection from U.S. military forces, while the military forces used their association with humanitarian organizations to improve their image. This collaboration strongly associated the purportedly neutral NGOs with occupying soldiers viewed as an enemy by many local citizens. This civil-military connection only undermines field workers long-term safety as they are increasingly associated with U.S. occupying forces, and thus, with the politics and violence of the conflict. It is likely that this has contributed to the increased targeting of NGO staff in Iraq and Afghanistan. To address the problems stemming from such relationships, delegates from the U.S. military and Department of Defense (DoD) and the member organizations of the American Council for Voluntary International Action (InterAction) recently created a set of civil-military guidelines governing behavior between these entities. While the guidelines allow for military protection in extreme cases, it is described as a last resort option. The civil-military guidelines rightfully interpret such deterrence strategies as ultimately in-creasing staff vulnerability.

The need for dedicated staff to formulate, revise, and implement this broad array of security policies, strategies, and procedures has led to a noticeable increase in the number of coordinators, officers, and other security personnel within international relief agencies. These individuals are either based in, or travel regularly to, the countries and regions where their organizations operates. They closely track security conditions, collaborate with each other to share information, and ensure that their respective organizations are implementing appropriate security procedures in the field. Their role is critical for building a better understanding of staff vulnerability and the motivations behind attacks.

Despite this increasing multitude of security procedures, policies, and guidelines, the number of attacks on humanitarian field staff continues to rise. There is no “silver bullet” that will miraculously keep aid workers safe. Like everyone else in a war zone, field staff will always experience some vulnerability. In most NGOs, a certain level of risk is accepted as being part of the job. However, not every field worker is equally subject to assault; within humanitarian relief NGOs foreign staffers normally enjoy better security than local aid personnel. Security policies that place national staff in the most dangerous places may partially explain why local employees of international relief organizations are more likely to be attacked than their foreign counterparts. It has also been argued that the use of armed guards only contributes to the problem of staff targeting by militarizing NGO field operations, thus giving warring factions greater reason to attack. Security policies and protocols remain works in progress as the number of attacks on NGO staff, especially local personnel, continues to increase. Often little reliable information is available on which to base future policies and security programs, and this limits the ability of humanitarian organizations to understand and respond to these threats in a proactive way.

Policy Recommendations

Based on the evidence provided by the HPG report, our case studies, and analysis of current NGO activities and initiatives, the following policy recommendations can be made.

Improve the collection, organization, and sharing of information about attacks on aid workers, and the contexts and motives influencing choice of targets. One of the most important things that NGOs can do to help protect their staff is to obtain more complete information on the contexts and reasons for attacks on field workers, especially the increasingly targeted national staff of non-governmental humanitarian relief organizations. This type of information is essential when implementing acceptance strategies that directly address the motives behind attacks on humanitarian workers and that are particularly important in active conflict zones in places like Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Deterrence and protection activities provide, at best, short-term, partial security and may have negative long-term effects on staff vulnerability.

Some humanitarian organizations have already taken steps to collect and organize data on aid worker attacks. The UN Department for Safety and Security (UNDSS), for example, incorporates incident monitoring and response into its activities, and the Office for the UN Security Coordinator (UNSECOORD) records UN civilian staff casualties and issues annual reports on “the safety and security of humanitarian personnel and protection of UN personnel.” The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies also compile data on security incidents involving staff and volunteers in the field. Websites such as ReliefWeb, started by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in 1997, publish all humanitarian related media, organization, and government agency news, giving researchers a place to start when investigating violent incidents in the field.

These initiatives need to go further. Comprehensive databases of all incidents in the field need to be developed, especially with regard to attacks on national and NGO staff. Detailed investigations should examine the socio-cultural, economic, political, and historical contexts and the possible motives behind each attack. Government, inter-governmental agencies, and NGOs must work together to implement synchronized systems to track incidents and gather information in the field. This needs to be done in a coordinated and collaborative manner that mandates regular sharing of data, research results, and lessons learned so that the benefits of this knowledge are available to all humanitarian actors.

The benefits of systematically collecting such information are clear. If organizations prioritize the investigation and recording of attacks on field staff, researchers will be able to use the data to better identify and analyze trends to learn who is targeted and the reasons behind the attacks. As a result of this security analysis, policy makers and field directors will gain useful information they can use on the ground to help avoid future incidents.

Prioritize obtaining in-depth knowledge about the cultural, socioeconomic and political realities in each region that may lead to targeting of aid workers. An important component of this information gathering is a sound understanding of the cultural, political, and socioeconomic contexts of the attacks. Each attack and the motives behind it is a product of these contextual forces. These must be taken into consideration by NGOs and aid agencies that wish to develop effective security policies. The U.S. Department of Defense has already acknowledged the importance of socio-cultural understanding to the security of troops in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. NGOs must take a similar approach to better understand the reasons behind the attacks on their members.

Increase research on the most vulnerable sub-groups of aid workers, and create security procedures specially designed to protect them. Since it is clear that the local staff members of NGOs are most vulnerable, national and NGO staff should receive special attention in new security arrangements. In recent years there have been increased attempts to ensure equal security protection for both national and foreign staff in large humanitarian organizations. However, this may not be enough. As permanent residents and members of local society, national NGO field staff face special risks and pressures that foreign staff rarely experience. Because they often work in the most dangerous zones and are normally not evacuated during periods of peak conflict, local field workers are especially vulnerable to attack. Research should be performed to determine why national NGO field workers are more frequently targeted for attack than expatriate agency employees, such as UN or USAID staff. Based on the results of this research, security policies and field protocol must include actions to protect national staff from the additional risks that they face.

InterAction’s members represent the largest U.S.-based relief and development organizations in the world, including the Co-operative for Relief and Assistance Everywhere (CARE), the ICRC, Catholic Relief Services, International Medical Corps, Doctors without Borders, World Relief, and many other important humanitarian relief NGOs. In spring 2001, InterAction’s members identified steps that aid organizations could implement to reduce the dangers faced by national staff. They concluded that a holistic approach to security would be most effective, and recommended that four main actions be taken: (1) increase the involvement of national staff in the formulation, review, and implementation of security policies and plans; (2) identify threats to national staff, then reduce their vulnerability to these threats; (3) establish clarity on security procedures and benefits, especially with regard to evacuation and relocation options; (4) integrate national staff security into preparedness, training, and human resource management procedures. These steps and others need to be taken to protect local field staff from the unique dangers that they face.

Ensure that existing security procedures and policies do not protect one type of humanitarian field worker at the expense of another’s security. Without more comprehensive information on the causes of at-tacks on specific subgroups of field workers, it will be difficult to produce policies guaranteed to reduce the heightened vulnerability of national staff. The HPG report notes that “in times of heightened insecurity, international staff rely increasingly on national staff or local partners to manage aid programmes, in effect shifting the burden of risk.” Some security policies formulated to protect foreign field staff may put local aid workers, especially those working in NGOs, at greater risk for attack. It is imperative that we better understand the different factors influencing the level of vulnerability that these sub-groups of aid workers experience if we want to develop effective policies and strategies that will protect all field staff, regardless of nationality, gender, or location.

Better information means better policies. Based on a sound foundation of reliable data, existing security procedures and guidelines can be improved and new and more effective policies may be implemented to help reduce casualties in the field. Existing frameworks for collaboration and information sharing between the governmental aid agencies and their NGO counterparts will provide avenues for communication about the results of UN and NGO research on attacks on aid workers and the motives behind them. Comprehensive guidelines like InterAction’s Minimum Operating Security Standards (MOSS), which apply to both the national and international staff of InterAction’s 175 member organizations, will be the first to benefit from a better understanding of the reasons for the increase in attacks on NGO field staff. Inter-governmental agency security standards, such as the UN MOSS, will improve as well. None of these policies and standards will function efficiently without access to current and accurate security information from the field.

Better coordination of U.S. government and NGO activities through a new Cabinet-level Department for Global and Human Development. In 2008, InterAction’s member organizations proposed the creation of a Cabinet-level Department for Global and Human Development (DGHD) charged with the promotion of “people centered sustainable development” and “humanitarian assistance.” This department would coordinate all government related activity on foreign assistance that was directly related to relief and development work, incorporating USAID and other development initiatives currently lodged in the departments of state, defense, and commerce.

As part of its mandate, the DGHD would work closely with and support private organizations, including the humanitarian NGOs whose field staff have increasingly been targeted for attack. The creation of a DGHD would unite all the non-military security related activities and funding provided by the U.S. government to humanitarian relief organizations in one department, thus allowing for better coordination within the U.S. government and humanitarian NGOs on all issues of relief and development, including aid worker security.

The necessary research and information sharing on the circumstances surrounding attacks on aid workers will require funding. The Obama administration will need to provide for these types of security research activities. Both USAID and non-governmental grant making institutions already provide ample budgets for security in their grants to large humanitarian organizations. Moving into the future, government funding will need to increase its focus on acceptance-based approaches to aid worker security and support the research of factors such as cultural context. The creation of the DGHD would centralize funding for these types of activities, making it easier for NGOs to work closely with the U.S. government throughout the funding process, instead of having to deal with multiple and often differing procedures, security focuses, and funding requirements scattered across a wide range of federal departments.

Increase the focus on acceptance strategies for long-term security. Farahnaz Karim’s HPG report, “Humanitarian Action in the New Security Environment: Policy and Operational Implications in Afghanistan,” argues that relying too heavily on protection and deterrence security approaches has the negative effect of distancing aid workers from those they serve. Without increased investment in acceptance strategies, local factions may come to view aid workers as legitimate military targets. Acceptance strategies are the only security strategies that attempt to identify possible motives for attack and work proactively to build relationships and manage aid worker image in the field. By consistently engaging with local government, leaders, and communities and maintaining a constant awareness of the importance of socio-cultural, political, and economic contexts, NGOs operating in dangerous areas may reduce long-term vulnerability. Acceptance by local communities and leaders and the maintenance of a positive image in the region help to ensure that humanitarian aid workers are viewed as useful contributors to society instead of as enemies or strategic military targets.

It is important when developing these strategies to ensure that they take into account the differences in how national and foreign field staff are perceived by potential attackers, local factions, communities, and leaders. With improved information about the contexts and motives surrounding attacks on aid workers, NGOs will be better able to create region-specific acceptance strategies that acknowledge the different socio-cultural and political positioning of national and foreign staff within the field environment. Such a nuanced approach could eventually help wean humanitarian organizations and agencies off protection and deterrence and toward a more sustainable, bridge-building approach to long-term security.


This study briefly examined the questions of who within the humanitarian community is being targeted, and why they are being attacked. The short answer is that while we have some idea of who is being attacked, we rarely know why. The reason for this is that every attack is unique. Each violent encounter is fraught with room for misinterpretation and embedded in layers of contextual meaning. The result is a series of unanswered questions that only better data and a more complete knowledge of the contexts (historical, socio-cultural, economic, and political) of these attacks can hope to answer. For this reason, it is imperative that the first step that relief organizations and agencies take to protect their staff is to increase the systematic collection and sharing of this information, and to actively support research into the details of violent attacks in the field. Until humanitarian organizations and agencies do so, the fundamental question of motive will go unanswered. Without this vital information, acceptance security strategies will not be as effective as they could be, and organizations will continue to rely on protection and deterrence strategies that militarize humanitarian field work, distancing aid workers from their communities and providing short-term security at the expense of long-term safety and acceptance.

Lyra H. Spang is a graduate student at the Colombian College’s Department of Anthropology where she focuses on international development issues. She previously worked analyzing international financial flows and project funding within the development sector in both Washington, D.C. and Argentina, with a special focus on export credit unions and multilateral development banks. Her interest in the targeting of humanitarian workers was sparked by the overlap between her coursework and work at the American Council for Voluntary International Action (InterAction).