“When aid workers leave, we know the situation is really bad”

 15th Aug 2016

By Barry Steyn, Director Safety and Security Unit, CARE International

Imagine you have to rush to a hospital after an accident – but all you find is a deserted building. While you are carried towards the emergency room you get a glimpse of patients wailing in their beds but you can’t see any nurses attending to their needs. In the emergency room, you wait and wait, but no doctors will come. Because they have fled the hospital. Tough luck that you happen to be in need of medical assistance in South Sudan, where a recent outbreak of fighting has caused countless people to stop everything they do and seek safety.

This scenario is the reality in many countries where CARE and our partners work. Very often it is a small group of dedicated, mostly local aid workers that stay behind and keep just the basic services running. They work tirelessly to deliver relief supplies, distribute food, run hospitals or coordinate relief activities. Yet very often they are directly in the crossfire and are increasingly targeted for what they do or for how they are perceived.

Over the past decide, as the humanitarian aid sector grew exponentially, the attacks against aid workers have increased constantly. In 2015 we saw 148 attacks on aid workers, mounting to 285 victims. The most dangerous countries for aid workers today are Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen - and South Sudan, where just last month CARE had to evacuate staff to protect them from serious fighting.

Fifteen to twenty years ago, driving in our jeeps with our logo on the door might have been a guarantee for safety. This has changed completely. Today, for a variety of reasons, aid workers are a target in some areas. One major concern has been the increase of kidnappings of aid workers for financial gain or political reasons. In some countries we are forced to keep a low profile because international NGOs are perceived as representing a foreign culture that is seen as a threat to some communities. Organizations such as CARE have invested much in the safety and security of their staff and a quality emergency response today includes comprehensive risk management. But at the same time, we are treading a thin line: unless we do accept some risks, we will be unable to reach those people trapped by fighting and violence. Yet, if staff are attacked or kidnapped in any given conflict, we may have to suspend or close operations which would have potential life-threatening impacts for the thousands of people who depend on our support. Angelina, a young mother from South Sudan recently told one of our staff at a CARE-supported health facility: “If we see humanitarian workers leave, we know the situation is really bad. When they are here with us, it is a form of security. Who will treat us when they are gone?”

CARE is bound by its humanitarian mandate to deliver aid where it is needed the most, regardless of race, gender, political affiliation or nationality. We uphold the principle of working independently from any political, military, commercial or religious objectives. We strive to be accepted by the communities, with many of which we have been working for decades. Village residents and community elders participate in our work and often protect us from threats. We need to be in a constant dialogue with all warring parties to negotiate for safe access and help them understand that our humanitarian assistance is neutral and impartial.

However, in many parts of the world this strategy does not work any longer. Too often, the lines between peacekeeping operations, military actions and humanitarian assistance have been blurred. Governments and militaries are using development work to win ‘hearts and minds’, making it increasingly difficult for local communities to understand the difference between actors.  It is a dangerous recipe: Mixing humanitarian aid with a political agenda results in a higher risk for aid workers.

In the past years, we have had to change our safety and security strategy. We have put security guidelines, policies and procedures that make our staff less vulnerable to threats in place. We have security officers monitoring situations continuously, advising when and where to plan relief distributions, assessment missions and other emergency operations as safely as possible for staff and beneficiaries. All of this costs money and time.

When attacks on aid workers make headline news, it is mainly because international staff are involved. However, in reality it is our national or partner staff that are mostly under fire. In 2009, we witnessed a drop in the numbers of security incidents. This was not because the risks had diminished – it was simply because fewer international staff were sent to the most dangerous places, those who remained are local aid workers. Yet it is not alone kidnappings or shootings that make for a very dangerous work setting. Our national colleagues are working under immense pressure to help their fellow citizens survive in times of crises while they are often affected themselves. CARE colleagues in Yemen have experienced death and destruction in their neighborhoods but that did not deter them from returning to work each and every morning after sleepless nights of air strikes and grenade attacks.

In May this year, political leaders gathered in Istanbul for the world’s first Humanitarian Summit. Sadly, the Summit failed to deliver solutions and political will to end the life-threatening crises around the world. Whereas some decisions were made to improve the humanitarian system, no degree of effectiveness or realistic amount of funding will be enough to keep communities and aid workers safe if we don’t stop the wars and conflicts that bring so much pain and misery.

Let’s be clear, we are not talking about a political option one can choose or not choose: Protecting humanitarian workers in armed conflicts is an obligation under international humanitarian law. States and non-State actors must respect aid workers. Without the necessary political will not just by all parties to a conflict but by all States supporting those parties, we will continue to witness high numbers of aid worker deaths, kidnappings or attacks.

World Humanitarian Day on August 19 is the day to salute all aid workers around the world on their work. I am humbled by their commitment, their bravery and their will to stay behind and help communities when everyone else has left. 

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