A UNHCR staff member at the Jordan border hands out juice and biscuits to newly arrived Syrian refugees. Aid workers often work in dangerous areas to help the needy.
UNHCR / J. Kohler / January 2014

Why Are So Many Aid Workers Being Killed in the Line of Duty?

Aid work can be a dangerous business. According to the latest verified data, 131 aid workers were killed in the line of duty in 2018. Many more were injured in serious attacks.

According to my guest today, Abby Stoddard, attacks on aid workers and humanitarian relief operations are both a symptom and a weapon of modern warfare. Indeed, it is the changing nature of conflict around the world that is driving increasing levels of violence against aid workers.

Abby Stoddard is former aid worker and a longtime researcher. Along with her research partner Adele Harmer, Stoddard has compiled a dataset of verified attacks on aid workers around the world. Their research are compiled in the Aid Worker Security Database, which has tracked attacks on aid workers since 1997.

The data they compiled tell many stories and offer important insights into trends of conflict, which we discuss on the show today.

Abby Stoddard’s new book in which much of this data is discussed and analyzed is called Necessary Risks: Professional Humanitarianism and Violence against Aid Workers.  Abby Stoddard is partner with Humanitarian Outcomes, an international consultancy that does research and policy advising for governments and organizations on humanitarian action.

If you have twenty minutes and want to learn how the changing nature of conflict is making humanitarian relief work more dangerous, have a listen.

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Abby Stoddard: (03:15)
My research partner, Adele Harmer and I were looking at this issue of whether it was true that things were getting worse in terms of insecurity for aid workers, whether they humanitarian space, so to speak, was really shrinking. And there was this big debate over it with some people saying no, it’s always been dangerous. And others saying, absolutely, yes, it’s a step change. But there were no actual numbers of how many aid workers were being attacked. So there was really no way to measure it. So we set about putting together the aid worker security database, which now has incidents from 1997 through the present and um, continually updated and major incidents, which is what we collect our definition as killings, kidnappings and attacks that result in serious injury. So it’s all deliberate violence and we source it from information sharing arrangements. We have with a security consortium and directly with agencies.

Abby Stoddard: (04:12)
And we also have sort of a scraping tools that we get reports from, from media on social media. And then we go through a process of verification every year where we go to, uh, the organizations involved and have them verify, correct, confirm these incidents. And we also collect other sort of unreported incidents through that process. So the, the data in the database has the, the unit is the attack. We have the day, the country and geocoded location information, the gender of the victim, their institutional affiliation. So whether they’re UN, Red Cross Movement, NGO or other whether they’re international or national staff and of course the outcomes of the incidents, whether they were killed, wounded or kidnapped, we had the means of violence. So whether there was a shooting or an aerial bombardment or IUD for instance, and the context that the attack took place in.

Abby Stoddard: (05:13)
So whether it was an ambush or a raid that sort of thing. We have also information where it’s available on the perpetrators and their motives and then we give sort of brief details of each incident.

Mark Goldberg: (05:27)
And it’s through collecting that data that you’re able to identify long-term trends.

Abby Stoddard: (05:33)
That’s right. Um, and we have a whole other database which helps us get the denominators so that we can calculate rates. How prevalent are attacks on aid workers? Well, first of all, violence against aid workers against civilian aid. Operations in general is not new by any stretch, but it’s a dangerous profession. And the numbers are trending upwards. Terms of casualties, both in absolute terms and rates. So every year since 2003 we’ve seen aid worker casualties at least in the hundreds and that’s counting people who are killed, wounded or kidnapped while on the job. Um, but I would like to say it’s not a global phenomenon, uh, meaning that you know, each year there are attacks in dozens of countries, but only a handful of these contexts have numbers in the sort of double and triple digits. And those really drive that totals year by year. And those tend to be the major conflict cases in places with weak and unstable governments. So for the past five years, South Sudan has sort of led the field and the highest number of aid worker deaths.

Mark Goldberg: (06:40)
It’s interesting in your book you use data suggesting that, you know, in terms of number of say aid worker fatalities per 100,000 aid workers deployed the number as actually more than say the number of us combat fatalities. It’s arguably a more dangerous job than being a U.S. Soldier in combat.

Abby Stoddard: (07:00)
It’s true. And that’s not the case every year, but many years. That is true. A U.S. Combat forces and also uniformed UN peacekeepers. And I also compared it against law enforcement officers in the U S and these are professions that have a direct threat of violence. And if you look at humanitarian aid workers, that’s not even counting the accidents and illnesses and everything. So just in terms of a threat of physical, deliberate violence, it is one of the most dangerous professions we have.

Mark Goldberg: (07:35)
And who are the aid workers who are most impacted by violence?

Abby Stoddard: (07:41)
So what many people may not realize is that the vast majority of aid workers generally are nationals of the countries that they’re working in. Um, and because most aid workers are national staff, uh, about 90% of the victims are also national staff. But when we look at the rates of national and international or expatriate aid workers, you’re seeing something interesting, which is that the, the rates of violence or national aid workers is actually growing. So there are always the the largest number of victims and in absolute terms, but international stats, you used to have a slightly higher attack rate, not perhaps explainable by there being a more visible target fetching higher ransoms for kidnappings. But the attack rate is now equal between national and international staff. But the fake tality rate for nationals is three times higher. So I think that shows in these more dangerous contexts, a reliance on international organizations using their partner organizations and remote operations with their national staff. So that brunt of the violence is really being born by these nationals.

Mark Goldberg: (08:57)
So in places like Syria or Yemen, you have these large organizations say, I don’t know, I’m just picking one out of the random, they’re like the international rescue committee or save the children. But really, you know, they’re working through local staff and national staff may be subcontracting a lot of their work to local NGOs.

Abby Stoddard: (09:16)
That’s right. So they’re both national staff in some cases and then implementing partner organizations that are up the country where they’re working.

Mark Goldberg: (09:25)
So you mentioned that most of attacks and fatalities against aid workers come from just a handful of, of countries. This is not a global phenomenon as you say, it’s a phenomenon that is driven largely by certain countries. Can you just describe why that is and what those countries are that you’re seeing these, these large numbers of fatalities and attacks coming from?

Abby Stoddard: (09:52)
Yeah, as to why this is all happening in the book. I talk about the characteristics of this sorts of armed conflicts that we’re seeing today and how you have the incentives of the non-state armed groups who are behind much of this violence. Um, these incentives not impel them to protect humanitarian operations. And maybe if it’s okay, I’ll just step back a little bit historically. Um, where the original ideal of a protected operational space for neutral humanitarian presence as a matter of international law and kind of a pragmatic means for limiting bloodshed that was really born of European interstate warfare of the 18 hundreds. Right? So that’s what the Geneva conventions are fundamentally based on. And you know, there are articles in additional protocols that deal with non-international conflicts, but it’s really in a way maladapted to the sorts of internal and asymmetric Wars that we’re seeing now, which have not only been on the rise since world war II, but they’re increasingly fragmented and chaotic. So like half of them are fought by more than two parties. And the ICRC reports that around 22% of them involve actually 10 or more.

Mark Goldberg: (11:10)
So you’re saying the ICRC is the international committee for the red cross. And so you’re saying that according to their data, was it 20% of conflicts have 10 or more factions and boys and of course, and of course this is not what in the 18 hundreds the Geneva conventions were designed for in the body of international humanitarian law that provides for that kind of space for humanitarian relief to operate.

Abby Stoddard: (11:37)
Right. That was really framed along there being two, maybe three sovereign entities where there are roughly equal benefits to each party and incentives for allowing a humanitarian presence that would aid civilians and wounded and prisoners of war. But when you’re a far smaller insurgent force or maybe a global jihadist movement, your strategic interests are very different. And it’s dealing with these non-state forces. That’s really the biggest challenge to humanitarian aid workers when it comes to operating securely.

Mark Goldberg: (12:10)
And also, it also seems to a certain degree that like the nature of say the UN’s work in, in a lot of these places is, is changed and is different than it was even, you know, 10, 15 years ago. I mean, most UN say operations are there to support say, you know, building state institutions you know, they’re there for nation building, which necessarily aligns them with the, the state in which they’re operating. But if you’re a jihadist or insurgent group, you know, your, your goal is to undermine and destabilize that state. And it seems that, you know, people driving in UN trucks or you know, blue helmets are your targets because they are representatives though they won’t see themselves that way. But from a perspective and insurgent that they’re representatives of the government.

Abby Stoddard: (13:03)
That’s right. And the UN does have humanitarian agencies which try to carve out a neutral space to operate and not be seen as political actors. But of course the UN always has that political identity. And often in these contexts, they are trying to create stability and peace and order and maybe shore up the government. So very often they’re automatically associated with the enemy by these non-state groups. And when that happens, they’re seen as legitimate targets.

Mark Goldberg: (13:34)
I mean, it seems like a fundamentally like a disastrous situation with no easy way out. I mean, like as I said, you have these agencies that are there to support humanitarian relief or do development but they’re operating in the midst of a conflict in which the sort of principle, political aim of one of the insurgent groups is to destabilize that government in that country that these agencies are seeking to prop up. I mean, is there any, like how, how have aid agencies adapted to that?

Abby Stoddard: (14:05)
Well, the ones that have been most successful do a couple of things. Um, first of all, they don’t assume that they will be accepted by the community or, uh, tolerated by the armed forces just because they call themselves a humanitarian organization. They know that they actually have to work for that acceptance and tolerance. Um, they also don’t assume that they can ever reduce their risk to zero. So no matter how good your security risk mitigation is, there’s always going to be a residual risk. What they do is be very explicit about what level of risk they are willing to accept for which activities and having done that actively work to continually assess and to weigh the different risks and manage them. Now for most, this means investing in staff capacity in both situational analysis, but also outreach and communications and really building skills and practical negotiation techniques. Because even though these, uh, non-state actors are very difficult to negotiate with, in many cases it can still be done and there’s been examples of success. It’s still dangerous and hit or miss. But there are cases where a non-state actor will have incentives to allow the humanitarian aid, particularly if they’re trying to control a certain area and actually provide some sort of governance. And it’s knowing sort of what stage the conflict is in and what type of actor you’re dealing with that can allow humanitarian organizations to begin to negotiate.

Mark Goldberg: (15:45)
Can you give me an example of a agency that was successfully able to negotiate with an insurgent group and what did that negotiation look like?

Abby Stoddard: (15:54)
Well, most negotiations with non state actors happen at the ground level and this is actually hindered in many ways by government counter-terror regulations, which tried to block humanitarians from negotiation, negotiating or giving any sort of director in direct benefit to sanction groups.

Mark Goldberg: (16:19)
I remember actually this coming to a head a few years ago when, uh, there was the threat and actual famine in Somalia and aid agencies desperately wanted to reach areas under the control of Al Shabaab. But we’re concerned that U.S. Government regulations might prevent them from doing so.

Abby Stoddard: (16:38)
That’s right. And we’ve seen those kinds of counter-terror regulations really skew the aid presence to areas where there’s less risk. And that often means not only less security risk, but less legal risk and financial risk from the um, the donor government finding out that you’re conducting business essentially with sanction groups. So Al Shabaab will often ask for taxes and this is the same with the Taliban and many other non-state armed groups that if you’re going to be working here, we need to exact some financial remuneration from you. Now it is against all sorts of humanitarian principles to pay that sort of tax. But the phenomenon of paid access is very real and it’s usually through intermediaries. And there are often um, arrangements whereby the aid organization doesn’t pay, but their vendors, their providers, people that are bringing the aid in are sort of tax secondarily. So that’s one way that they get around it. But this is all kind of after the initial with the non-state actor about we, this is who we are, this is what we’ll be doing. We need agreements that you will not be attacking us. And that is, can be a long process and can start kind of before an organization is even operating in a certain area. But if it’s not done, the organization is putting its staff at great risk.

Mark Goldberg: (18:15)
So in your book, you note that attacks on aid workers can be an important indicator suggesting a future downward spiral of, of a government or some sort of destabilizing conflict situation. Um, can you share any examples of, of how that indicator has, has worked and how that, how that process has work?

Abby Stoddard: (18:37)
Well, generally we find that the more intense the conflict in an unstable environment, the greater the number of attacks against aid workers generally, but also low levels of political stability, correlated aid worker attacks, sort of independently. So we’ve seen higher numbers of attacks in countries whose governments scored lower on measures of political and economic effectiveness on legitimacy and general sort of rule of law. So it does seem that um, the disintegration of government leads to an environment where you get increased aid worker attacks. And interestingly we saw that the type of political regime in place didn’t matter. Um, but more it’s strength and stability. So whether it was a democratic or autocratic government, was no more predictive, whether it was a weak or strong

Mark Goldberg: (19:31)
in your, in your work you do. And I know in your data sets you do distinguish between attacks on aid workers and also, uh, aid workers affiliated with United nations. Have you do state or any sort of difference in the motives of attacks in those situations? Like are the United nations aid workers or United nations officials targeted for different reasons then say aid workers for independent NGOs.

Abby Stoddard: (20:02)
We haven’t been able to determine that there was a lot of interest, for instance, in whether faith based organizations in some contexts are attacked more than secular organizations. Uh, so it’s, it’s really hard to determine from the data. I think that what many people neglect to consider is that often there are practical reasons for striking at an aid organization just because it happens to be the softest or the only available target in a certain area. You know, if you’re a cell and you need to make a strike, it’s going to be easier to hit an NGO as opposed to the generally more protected UN not to mention the fortified sort of government military targets. So I don’t think you can say that there’s much of a correlation between types of organizations. It’s more kind of where the opportunistic targets are.

Mark Goldberg: (21:05)
Although, you know, in some like jihadist ideology, the UN represents sort of a greater evil perhaps than say international NGOs at least that was clear in some of the responses that we saw to say the 2003 canal hotel bombing of the UN headquarters in Iraq.

Abby Stoddard: (21:23)
Yes. I think in that case the UN was directly associated with the coalition forces with the occupying power and they were also had the reputation of the sanctions regime in the years leading up to it. So the, I think there was already a good deal of enmity in the part of the population and particularly on the part of the insurgence against the UN in other contexts. I’ve been surprised at how well the different types and even specific organizations are distinguished by the non state actors. So they know who’s who, they know where they’re getting their money from. And depending on what sort of programming they’re doing, they might allow them or not. So it really is case by case. Um, which I think shows the importance of an individual negotiation strategy for these organizations.

Mark Goldberg: (22:17)
Are there details of any specific attacks that sort of exemplify a lot of the, the trends in the data that you’ve identified and that you’ve, you know, that you discuss in your book. So can you share any sort of anecdotes or discuss any specific incidents that are sort of illustrative of some of the points that you’re making?

Abby Stoddard: (22:39)
Well, the cases that I chose for the book tend to be a bit more spectacular, shall we say. The canal hotel bombing was the, I think single largest casualty incident that the UN had and NGOs, uh, had their staff involved in that as well. Um, and that I think typified the political association problem. Um, when you think about the failed and disintegrating States, uh, the raid on the terrain hotel compound in South Sudan a few years ago where it was actually government soldiers who broke in killed one staff member and subjected the others to, uh, beatings and, and gang rapes was something that kind of took the community in Juba by surprise and really showed sort of the rapid disintegration of the security situation with the conflict dynamics. Okay. Can you describe that? That incident in more detail? So they’re fighting had broken out in Juba between the government and the main opposition faction.

Abby Stoddard: (23:58)
And unlike previous times that fighting a broken out in Juba, the ag community didn’t have time to evacuate and people were just sort of hunkered down. There was one hotel which was being used for, uh, residents for a few different NGOs. And these people were holed up for days while the fighting literally went on over their heads, but the entire time they were reassuring themselves and the rest of the community in the U.N. Were saying, don’t worry, international organizations are not the target here. This is between the two factions and you just need to stay out of the line of fire and you’ll be fine. Um, and what happened then suddenly was these soldiers who had actually just won the battle broke in and the staff were sort of pulled up in rooms and bathrooms. Um, but they just continued to storm their way in and um, executed a national staff member who was the, uh, of the tribe, uh, represented by the opposition.

Abby Stoddard: (25:09)
And basically what it was, it was riding soldiers is what, it wasn’t sort of the worst case scenario. And many of the women were repeatedly raped.

Mark Goldberg: (25:19)
So how have aid agencies evolved to adapt to these new kinds of security threats?

Abby Stoddard: (25:27)
So the ones that tend to respond to conflict scenarios and be in areas where there’s a good deal of security risk have really professionalized their approach to security risk management. Now, professionalization is kind of a bad word in some humanitarian circles because it’s mistakenly equated with corporatism and bureaucratization, which can lead to risk aversion and, and those are real concerns. But that’s not what I mean by professionalism.

Abby Stoddard: (25:56)
So I’m talking about the mastery of skills and knowledge in a given domain and the continual improvement of those skills along with sort of principles and practical tools and techniques that can be trained. So for those that worry, that professionalizing security means turning into, turning it into a kind of a specialist silo that’s removed for programming, or it removes the human agency from making decisions and you’ll have people blindly following templates and manuals without understanding the situation. I think that’s, that’s misguided.

Abby Stoddard: (26:30)
Um, I think the, what I put forward in a book is kind of a vision of professionalism as an ethical framework where the goal you’re striving for is not the interests of the aid organization or the personal spirit of altruism on the part of the aid providers, but it’s really about doing the job as well as possible for the people that you’re serving. So it’s all about the outcomes. And I think that the organizations that have taken their security seriously have professionalized it as an area that can be learned and trained and continually improve are the ones that have done the best. Uh, in terms of getting access to insecure areas, it’s all about enabling access.

Mark Goldberg: (27:14)
And I guess, you know, this is partly a reflection of the fact that, you know, as you said at the outset, the fundamental nature of conflict has changed from the time that many of these aid agencies were initially, you know, conceived. Um, and so it’s sort of them kind of keeping up with the times in a way.

Abby Stoddard: (27:32)
That’s right. It’s, it’s what the times require. Um, again, they can never reduce risk to zero. They have to decide what risks are necessary to take on, depending on how important what they’re doing is, which is a concept called program criticality. And that’s where I derive my title of necessary risks.

Mark Goldberg: (27:51)
What has been the impact on civilians that are trapped in conflict from, you know, these trends of, of increasing attacks on aid workers?

Abby Stoddard: (28:03)
Well, it’s, it affects them indirectly in that whenever there’s a major security attack, the aid operations tend to shrink pull back a bit. Sometimes they consolidate into provincial capitals. Uh, there’s definitely when the risk level can go up and then it tends to stay up for a while. So you really do see that decisions to expand operations to go meet needs of some population in a different area that you’re not familiar with, those decisions tend not to happen because first priority has to be for your staff. So insecurity is uh, a real negative in terms of humanitarian access. There are other obstacles to access as well, but insecurity tends to be a huge driver of it and it’s really only a few organizations that can be relied on to be in the most high risk areas in conflict countries.

Mark Goldberg: (29:12)
Uh, well I will post a link to the book on the website. Thank you so much for your time and also for all the great data that you have collected over the years. Well, thanks. Made publicly available.

Abby Stoddard: (29:24)
Yeah. Yeah. So I would point your listeners to aidworkerssecurity.org. That’s a database that’s updated in real time and publicly downloadable.