Book manuscript in preparation. Humanitarians under Attack.
“On the way to the airport we pass unmarked white landcruisers, the trademark of aid agencies. For the last 24 years in Afghanistan MSF has been using these vehicles: they enable the population to identify us. Looking closely at these unmarked landcruisers, though, you see Western soldiers inside.” (MSF 2004)
In July 2004, Médecins sans frontiers’ (MSF) Afghanistan country director described his journey to the airport after the organization withdrew from the country due to an attack that killed five staff members in a marked MSF vehicle. Local Taliban commanders were found responsible. In 2012, the Taliban issued a statement in support of the ICRC calling them an ‘’impartial organization [which] works throughout the world for the needy, helpless and oppressed people’’ (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan 2012). Yet, only a few months later a red cross compound in Jalalabad was attacked. These incidents demonstrate the inconsistent responses of non-state armed groups towards humanitarian organizations, as they are not always opposed to aid.
Non-state armed groups are not the only perpetrators of attacks against aid workers. In Syria, the government notoriously targeted hospitals, forcing medical facilities to relocate underground to protect doctors and patients. During the Ebola epidemics in West Africa in 2013/2014, and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018, Ebola responders repeatedly became the target of violent mob attacks.
Humanitarian organizations are increasingly confronted with violence against aid workers. Although most attacks occur in countries experiencing violent conflict and are perpetrated by armed groups, non-conflict countries are also affected. Contrary to common assumptions, civilians can also be among the perpetrators. Given that humanitarian organizations are providing life-saving assistance to civilians in need, what explains the diverse attacks on aid workers? An Italian proverb says “Sparare sulla Croce Rossa” [Shoot at the Red Cross]. The phrase is used to refer to those who exploit a weakness of others to win a competition. It assumes that medical providers who are unarmed and obviously marked with a Red Cross are easy targets. However, is the Red Cross just a target because it is so easy to hit? The earlier examples tell different stories, which lead to new questions. Are aid workers targeted because they are perceived as Westerners, or because a regime wants to deny medical care to millions of civilians? To answer these question, I draw on theories from humanitarian ethics, research on political violence in general, and organizational research.
Humanitarian action is guided by four key humanitarian principles including humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence (Pictet 1979). The ambiguity surrounding humanitarian principles allows for competing interpretations of what humanitarian aid is or should be. These principles are in direct conflict with the Triple Nexus approach, which recognizes that humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding efforts are more effective when they work together in a coordinated and integrated way. This shapes actors’ perceptions and conceptions of aid, affect the acceptance of aid workers and can ultimately result in violence. A key outcome of the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit was the Grand Bargain, which is a set of commitments made by donors and aid organizations to reform the humanitarian system, such as increasing localization, adhering to humanitarian principles and committing to the Triple Nexus. This book examines the impact of the Grand Bargain commitments on the security of aid workers.
To capture abstract concepts such as ‘localization’ and ‘humanitarian principles’, I measure the aid system using financial indicators. Aid localization can be measured by looking at the proportion of funding directed towards local or national organizations compared to international organizations. To operationalize humanitarian principles, financial indicators can be used to assess the extent to which donors adhere to principles of neutrality and independence. If the United States, for example, funds aid organizations in Afghanistan, it is reasonable to assume that these organizations will not provide assistance to the enemies of the United States. To measure impartiality, aid organizations can be assessed based on their ability to reach all those in need, regardless of their background or political affiliation. Funding gaps may make it difficult to achieve full impartiality.
I argue that armed groups are motivated by material benefits, political aims, or distrust towards aid workers. Aid has direct value, whether it is material or political, and those who receive it benefit greatly. However, humanitarians are often feared because they are perceived as politically motivated actors who secretly want to help the enemy. These motives are influenced by two sets of structural factors – political dynamics and the condition of the aid system – which relate to how aid organizations uphold humanitarian principles and how they are perceived by others. This book presents a novel approach by combining research on humanitarian ethics with the literature on conflict dynamics and empirically testing its findings. It introduces a new theoretical framework based on the voices from the field. This enables a comprehensive analysis beyond the conventional factors from the conflict studies literature by including the conditions of the aid system.
I evaluate this novel framework in four empirical chapters using multiple methods combining quantitative causal modelling with qualitative methods based on fieldwork and process tracing. First, a cross-national analysis assesses the overall validity of the theoretical framework in a comparative manner. Next, a mixed-method case study examines the extent to which the strategies of aid organizations can explain violence against Ebola responders during the 10th Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The two final empirical chapters show to what extent aid workers are also associated with international peacekeepers in the case of Mali.
The prevailing view in the humanitarian community is that ‘all security is local’. This monograph shows the limitations of the localization argument. Aid agencies' strategies alone have a limited impact on the safety of aid workers. Rather, their security depends on the behavior or presence of other actors such as governments or peacekeepers. In this manuscript, I demonstrate that humanitarians are under attack because they are strategically important to armed groups or because they are distrusted. Despite humanitarians’ aspirations to be neutral and impartial, aid either becomes a strategic target for armed groups or the population perceives aid as a political instrument. Understanding the dynamics behind attacks can help organizations make operational decisions and mitigate risk to employees.
Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. 2012. “The Valuable Services Of The Red Cross In Reducing The Sufferings Of Afghans.”
MSF. 2004. “Six Days Surrounding MSF’s Decision to Withdraw from Afghanistan | MSF.” Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International. https://www.msf.org/six-days-surrounding-msfs-decision-withdraw-afghanistan.
Pictet, Jean. 1979. “The Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross.” International Review of the Red Cross (1961 - 1997) 19(210): 130–49.