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Yes, aid workers are getting killed more often. But why?

Aid groups are protecting international staff — while local staff are getting killed in their own countries.

- December 6, 2019

In late 2019, the humanitarian world was shocked by the suspicious death of James Le Mesurier, a British man who co-founded the White Helmets, a volunteer group that rescues civilians wounded in the Syrian war. The death revealed how dangerous aid work can be. But unlike Le Mesurier, most aid workers who are attacked or killed are citizens of the country in which they’re working. They’re local staff hired by international aid organizations, not outsiders.

Syria is now the deadliest place in the world for those delivering medical aid. In 2012, the regime of Bashar al-Assad effectively outlawed caring for the sick and wounded in rebel-held areas. With that law in place, the regime and Russian warplanes targeted such medical personnel for intimidation, torture and killing. Of the White Helmet volunteers Le Mesurier helped train, the Economist reports, one out of six has died.

Since the 1980s, the humanitarian industry has grown dramatically as governments rely more on nongovernmental organizations to deliver aid during long-lasting conflicts and large-scale disasters. Alongside that growth, attacks against aid workers have also risen. But it’s not expatriate or international staff who are being killed at higher rates; rather, it’s locally based aid workers, citizens of the country receiving aid. They are suffering rates of attack that are rising faster than their growing involvement in aid activities.

Before 2000, local staff deaths made up 19 percent of all reported aid worker deaths at the United Nations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and other international humanitarian groups, according to Insecurity Insight’s research. By 2010, locally hired staff made up 71 percent of all aid workers killed. But research I conducted in the Middle East among humanitarian responders to the war in Syria in 2011 shows that these organizations still transferred a great deal of additional risk to Syrian workers and local organizations while that proportion was climbing. They moved to protect their expatriate workers at the expense of Syrian local staff.

Going underground, leaving or becoming remote

How? Hospitals moved underground. Organizations removed their names and emblems from project sites and vehicles. Once, aid groups had given their GPS coordinates to warring parties, expecting them to spare hospitals from violence; now they withheld their locations lest they be deliberately targeted.

During the Syrian conflict, aid groups have based themselves across the border in Turkey and Jordan — leaving Syrian staff and local groups in “the field” to carry out their activities. Numerous agencies report working remotely and sending funds into Syria — but that they are unable to oversee those funds’ distribution or use. Agencies like USAID demanded international humanitarian agencies more closely monitor how their funds were used — and were scoffed at in return.

Syria’s not the only place where international aid groups have kept their distance. In the Somalia conflict, aid groups have been based in Kenya for years now. Nor was Syria the first case in which groups’ names and emblems have been hidden.

However, by so broadly turning to cross-border and clandestine approaches to deliver aid in Syria, organizations have greatly limited the quality of aid they could deliver.

That’s a change. In the past, international groups and the U.N. delivered aid with the permission of a country’s government, respecting national sovereignty. But in 2014 the U.N. passed Resolution 2165, which allowed aid groups to deliver and monitor aid across Syria’s borders — with notifications, rather than permissions. Groups that did that had to work without knowing the local landscape and without strong networks inside Syria. That meant that instead of sending in experts with humanitarian expertise, aid groups were offering guidance from a distance and delivering some money and supplies — much needed, but not as useful in saving lives.

Why compromise aid to protect the best-protected?

So why would international aid groups choose self-preservation? Aid workers, like reporters or emergency responders, are generally known for running toward danger, not away from it, weighing threats to themselves against the possibility of saving lives. Groups such as Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross and Red Crescent make sure volunteers understand that they’re facing danger. Volunteers abide by charters and sign contracts, agreeing not to expect or demand compensation should they be attacked.

But my research finds that after 2010 and the Arab Spring, the kinds of attacks aid workers faced changed in naturein ways that led humanitarian groups to see security in the Middle East differently, in these three ways.

First, humanitarian groups believed that security guarantees that could once have been relied on no longer could be.

Second, they knew that aid workers could be targeted for brutal, cruel and humiliating killings — killings that were sometimes broadcast in terrorist propaganda. Organizations were not willing to risk such targeting.

Third, aid workers believed armed groups were irredeemably deviant, defying old norms of how to treat humanitarian workers. Further, they believed that U.N. member states and their proxies were backsliding on their commitments under international humanitarian law. Humanitarian leadership warned against a return to barbarian times — a word not used so publicly since colonial times — particularly in Syria.

These changes led aid groups to further protect expatriate worker lives, leaving Syrian nationals behind.

Many organizations expect their local staff to be more willing to risk their lives and better able to ensure their security than their international colleagues — specifically because it is their home. The evidence of the last decade does not uphold this theory. Syrian nationals are taking extreme risks when they provide aid in place of their international colleagues, especially because they cannot leave.

Will organizations work to offer the same level of protections to staff, no matter which passports they hold? If yes, they will move closer to upholding commitments to equality and solidarity.

Emily K.M. Scott is a postdoctoral fellow at the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy and Oxfam America, in residence at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. She is also a research affiliate at McGill University’s Centre for International Peace and Security Studies.