Page last updated at 12:41 GMT, Tuesday, 21 October 2008 13:41 UK

Overcoming the threat to aid workers


The killing of a British aid worker in Afghanistan has again highlighted the dangers posed to humanitarian staff in many parts of the world. BBC News looks at the threats and what can be done to ease them.

Aid work is about helping those less fortunate than yourself, but for hundreds of humanitarian workers in the world's most dangerous countries the threat of violence goes hand in hand with their chosen path.

The shooting of aid worker Gayle Williams, who had dual British and South African nationality, adds to a death toll that has reached almost 30 in Afghanistan alone during the past year, according to the UN.

Her killing by two men on a motorbike as she walked to work in Kabul came days after two local UN aid workers were killed in Somalia.

The number of attacks in those two countries make them the most dangerous places in which to help your fellow humans.

John Holmes, a United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said: "We've had 25-30 killed in each of those places this year.

"This is not the result of people being caught up in a conflict or in crossfire, these are people being targeted deliberately because they are humanitarian workers and that is frankly outrageous and unacceptable and makes it extremely difficult to continue our work."

Ideological attacks

Earlier this month, the UN issued a report into the protection and security of its own staff and humanitarian workers.

In the 12 months to July 2008, it said that 63 aid workers were killed, including 18 in Somalia, 17 in Afghanistan, 14 in Sudan, six in Pakistan, four in Chad and one each in Burundi, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Uganda.

Fatalities in some of those countries have since risen.

Among UN civilian staff there were 25 deaths - up from 16 the previous year.

Seventeen were killed in a single bomb attack in Algeria, three in the Palestinian territories, and one each in Chad, Kenya, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Lebanon.

The Taleban are reported to have said they killed Ms Williams because she was working for a Christian organisation, but such a difference is not always so specific.

"On the part of some people there is an ideological perception that any intervention from the outside, including by NGOs [non-governmental organisations] just as much as UN agencies, and including when the people concerned are national staff, so they're not Christians or foreigners themselves, is somehow perceived as interfering with the sovereignty or part of some Western agenda," Mr Holmes said.

Aid being distributed at a UN camp in Somalia
Most aid workers are locally hired in Somalia as foreigners have left

"Frankly this is just a misperception. We have nothing to do with any political or security agendas of anybody else.

"These are people really devoting their lives to helping others and the fact that they are then targeted and killed and abducted and mistreated in this way is an outrage which I don't think we denounce enough frankly."

While he described the situation in both Afghanistan and Somalia as "a pattern" of ideological attacks, he said in Darfur there was a different - yet equally disturbing - scenario.

"Darfur is a bit different where you see humanitarian workers being attacked, mainly to steal their vehicles, steal their radios and it's banditry of a high order.

"It isn't ideological in quite the same way, but where we are seeing them targeted deliberately, that is a lack of respect for humanitarian ideals and the ideals the people are embodying by being there and that is really worrying."

But is it a case of better protection for aid workers, or withdrawing altogether, and thus leaving vulnerable people without assistance?

People in this business have always accepted the risks, there have always been losses, there have always been horrific incidents
John Holmes, United Nations

For the United Nations, "pulling out is the absolute last resort", said Mr Holmes, but he warned that it may yet come to that in Somalia. In recent months, all of those killed in Somalia have been nationals as most foreign humanitarian workers have left the country.

He said the best protection has to be offered to aid workers "without actually compromising them more by associating with armed forces".

But he offered a third option of dealing with the situation: talking.

"We need to pursue more intensively... talking to the people on the ground, whoever has the guns, however undesirable or terrorist-like they may be.

"We have to talk to them to explain why we're there, why we're different from other international actors - whoever they may be - and therefore why they should leave us alone to do the work which is simply there to help the poorest and the people suffering most in the community."

Aid workers face such immense danger but keep going
Fasahath Husain, Chennai, India

Recent attacks have not had an impact on recruitment, possibly because aid workers are "remarkably dedicated", Mr Holmes said.

"People in this business have always accepted the risks, there have always been losses, there have always been horrific incidents."

French aid worker Sebastien Lambroschini, of the French charity Acted, agreed that aid workers were in the line of fire.

"Our interventions are geared towards helping the most vulnerable and the most vulnerable are often the victims of the conflict, or of ethnic cleansing.

"So rebels, or government forces, or paramilitary forces that are on the other side consider that we are fighting a war against them as well, not with weapons but with humanitarian aid."

Appearing neutral

An aid worker for the international aid organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres, Stephan Goetghebuer, said humanitarian workers were in danger of losing their neutral status.

The Kabul street where Gayle Williams was shot dead
Gayle Williams was shot as she walked to work at a Christian charity

Mr Goetghebuer has worked in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Colombia, and is soon to begin working in Darfur.

"I think it's more difficult for us to introduce ourselves as being completely neutral today.

"I think today we are confronted with Western interests that are present in those countries, or Western positions that are extremely tough... There is today a line that is far less clear between what is the interest, sometimes military objective, of Western countries and the way we are perceived amongst the population.

"We are an international organisation, but we are still perceived as being very Western."

In the wake of attacks, NGOs often consider withdrawing or suspending operations, as MSF did temporarily in Darfur and the International Rescue Committee did in Kabul after three of its foreign female staff were shot with their Afghan driver.

According to UN figures, locally recruited humanitarian workers and UN personnel accounted for 21 of the 25 deaths from July 2007 to June 2008, as well as suffering the majority of arrests, detentions or harassments.

But while expats have the option of leaving if trouble erupts, the same desire may not be present for national workers.

Mr Goetghebuer said: "I have seen the situation where national staff were happy to see expatriate staff leave, but they were not willing to leave - their family was there, their life was there, it's not obvious that they want to evacuate."

UK charity worker killed in Kabul
20 Oct 08 |  South Asia

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