‘Humanitarian’ risk management

It’s starting to get cold in Kabul. One of my team came in this morning wearing a thick jumper that happened to have the US flag sewn onto one arm. His brother had been given it when he used to work as a translator for the Americans. I joked that the flag could get him in trouble. He didn’t find it so funny, and took it off.

International aid workers get all the limelight when they get killed, but national staff members face much greater risks. Of 28 aid workers killed in Afghanistan from January to September, 23 were Afghans. Similarly, Afghans comprise 90% of aid workers kidnapped. There’s an article from IRIN that’s well worth reading that puts the risks faced by expatriates into perspective.

And an article here asks the uncomfortable questions on the same theme:

To put it blunty, it often seems that the life of a western aid worker is worth more than his or her Afghan or Congolese or Somali or Sudanese colleague.

Granted, given that the vast majority of humanitarian workers are national staff, it’s not surprising that they tend to suffer the majority of attacks.

What is disturbing, however, is how humanitarian strategies for operating in places like Afghanistan effectively transfer risk from international to national staff.

Too dangerous for me to go somewhere? A shame, but no matter, I’ll send an Afghan colleague instead. He will certainly attract less attention than I. I’ll just tell him to not take any ID card or official documents from work, to delete the names of foreigners from his phone, to think of some story to say why he has to go there, should he be asked by the wrong person.

While I’m referring to other sources, here are a couple more: as ever, Ghosts of Alexander provides better analysis on Afghanistan then I ever find in any newspaper, and has written some valuable pieces on negotiating with the Taliban, in Mecca  and in historical perspective.

And itinerant and indignant, another aid worker in Afghanistan, has some interesting thoughts on the troubling times in Kabul and the perception of risk.


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4 Responses to “‘Humanitarian’ risk management”

  1. Peter Says:

    The article in IRIN highlighted a pressing issue. The fact that local aid workers are more and more in the front (firing) line is not only true in Afghanistan, but also in Sudan and Somalia.

    It looks as more agencies are pulling out international staff from danger zones, the local aidworkers are continuing with the work, and are more vulnerable to any attacks.

    We, international aidworkers, seem to have a choice which the local aidworkers don’t have. The choice to “pack up and go”….


  2. Vasco Pyjama Says:

    Same in Somalia. There are days when the organisation I works for thinks that it’s kinda dangerous but we still ‘don’t want to get behind in our work’. So send the national staff out whilst the expats stay in doors. And sometimes, expats aren’t even targets in particular.

    Then there is the other issue of evacuation. We only evacuate expats. Why, when national staff are as likely to be in as much risk?

  3. harryrud Says:

    Or we travel by plane to avoid dangerous roads, while the nationals spend two days in a car to get to the same place.

    As for packing up and evacuating – indeed. Though there I guess it does get more difficult, with visas etc, and potentially even refugee law? But I really hope I never have to try and explain that to a national colleague as I’m waving goodbye.

  4. Marianne Says:

    Wow – I’m reminded again how easy daily life in NZ is – so many less things to worry about and yet I find some anyway. Hmmmm

    My Afghan co-workers used to disagree about whether the reason I should go by plane while they went by road was because I was a woman or because I was a foreigner. Both made me uncomfortable but I used to let myself believe it was because I was a woman to end the ethical debate in my own head. A cop out.

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