The attack on the World Food Program headquarters in Islamabad was a tragedy and a crime. It was also symptomatic of a deadly trend in international security. Last year, 268 humanitarian aid workers were killed, kidnapped, or seriously injured in violent attacks. This represents a 61% increase of attacks on aid workers over the past decade. This increase is not just because there are more aid workers in the field today. Rather, the relative number of aid worker victims is steadily increasing. According to data compiled by the Overseas Development Institute, there were about 9 aid worker victims per 10,000 workers in the field in 2008 compared to about 4 per 10,000 in 1997.
This chart, also from ODI, shows the number of attacks on aid workers since 1997. The data includes attacks on the UN, the ICRC and NGOs. The majority of these incidents over the past three years have occurred in Somalia, Afghanistan and Sudan.
The trendlines are clear. What is not clear, however, is how the international community can respond to this onslaught. The neutrality of aid workers in a conflict zone is no longer respected by belligerents, yet aid workers continue to conduct critical life-saving work despite the increased risk. These workers bravely put their lives on the line in the service of others — and in the case of the World Food Program in Pakistan, in the service of stabilizing a strategically important country. It is in the international communities own interest to do what it can to stem this terrible trend. We ignore it at our own risk.