Risk to aid workers rising: NGOs, Firms

Organizations are consulting on ways to keep staff as safe as possible. -Embassy Magazine

Canadian aid workers find themselves more and more threatened in the field, say several officials—something they attribute to everything from increased government co-ordination to the proliferation of small arms and increasingly dangerous locales.

“Generally, things are much more difficult now than they used to be,” said Mark Fried, policy co-ordinator at Oxfam Canada. 

“There are a lot more guns in the world—and some people decide that we’re the ones to be shot at.”

“The risk is increasing year by year,” agreed Jeff Eames, who has decades of international experience in countries such as Cambodia and Afghanistan, and now runs a company that specializes in security training for humanitarian workers.

“Nowadays [development workers] are more focused on government-funded programs and therefore are more related to the Canadian government,” he said. 

While development workers are meant to remain neutral, they are being seen more and more as potential targets, especially if they work alongside Canadian Forces to deliver humanitarian assistance, he added.

The perception by locals can be, “it’s all one unit—it’s all one thing.”

Nikki Whaites, a senior program manager with War Child’s international programs, also said the environment for a development worker is becoming more dangerous, because the locations are becoming more hazardous. 

According to the Aid Worker Security Database, there were eight incidents involving international aid workers just in January. 

There were 87 kidnappings of aid workers in 2012, compared with just seven in 2003, and the number of kidnapped development workers has also been high over the past four years. 

In fact, the number of incidents has been on an upward trend beginning in 2003, peaking in 2008 at 165. In 2012, 100 incidents were reported. One silver lining: the number of aid workers killed in 2012 was the lowest recorded since 2003.

Canadians haven’t been spared these statistics. In June 2012, two Canadian aid workers were kidnapped while travelling in an unarmed escort of vehicles near the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, but were rescued alive three days later. In December 2008, former Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler and his colleague Louis Guay were abducted and held hostage in Northern Mali by Al Qaeda-affiliated members.


Workshop looks at solutions

Aid agencies, seeing the numbers and reading about the incidents, are beginning to consider how to take a holistic approach to security to fulfill both a moral and legal obligation to keep workers as safe and healthy as possible. 

Mr. Eames was in Ottawa from Feb. 12 to 14 to run a two-day personal security workshop, and a one-day security management workshop, hosted by the Ontario Council for International Co-operation at Oxfam Canada’s national office.  

Embassy was present for the personal security workshop, which had 18 other participants from organizations such as the World University Service of Canada, the Centre for International Studies and Cooperation, and Cuso International. 

Through interactive activities, videos, and group work, Mr. Eames identified some of the greatest risks development workers face in fragile environments: unpredictable crowds and demonstrations; kidnappings; shootings and bombs; sexual and gender violence; as well as operational stress and mental injuries.

Mr. Eames taught participants how to create evacuation plans that are well-oiled from headquarters all the way down to field offices and individual staff, how to do incident reporting, and what to do when faced with a kidnapping threat. 

He also taught what to do if one finds oneself within range of a grenade about to explode (individuals should throw themselves flat on the ground, cross their legs to protect internal organs, plug their ears, and scream as loud as possible to protect their eardrums from the loud blast, he said.)

And he stressed the importance of making security as important as the programs, and said that if extensive analysis of the situation on the ground is done, and if workers are given the proper training, there should be very few places development workers can’t visit with reasonable safety.  

“The old idea of a good person going to the field, prepared to risk anything to provide aid—it’s still there in some quarters, but thankfully, it’s beginning to fade out,” he said.

“We need to change that image that aid workers are just do-gooders, doing good. We are do-gooders, but we’re not there just for that—it’s actually our profession.”

Mr. Fried said there have been incidents in the past few years involving Oxfam staff, although he didn’t know how many. 

He said Oxfam has developed very strict security protocols and guidelines—including both general policies and a set of unique security plans for each region the staff operate in. 

Depending on the environment on the ground, policies vary, but can include: not leaving the Oxfam compound without communicating a route and destination, only travelling in Oxfam vehicles, and not going out after dark. 

Sometimes the staff is required to evacuate an area either temporarily or indefinitely if new information shows that it has become too insecure. 

Oxfam doesn’t use armed guards: Instead, trust and strong relationships with locals can be the best safety measure, he said.

Ms. Whaites, who has worked in Ghana, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others, said she has never faced a major security threat while working abroad, which she said is “a testament, especially for War Child, for the stringent security and safety procedures that we have in place.”

Learning how to defuse anger, and how to remain calm enough to follow training is key to staying safe while working abroad, she added. 

“Any employee should expect their organization to have very stringent and appropriate safety and security policies and procedures in place,” she said. 

“And any employee at any time should also have the right to say, ‘I don’t feel safe going here.’”


Others doing training

Mr. Eames is not the only one consulting on the dangers to aid workers.

Paul LaRose-Edwards is the executive director of CANADEM, a non-profit agency that recruits and connects Canadian experts with a range of international businesses and organizations worldwide. He told Embassy in a separate interview that his organization provides confidential duty of care audits to organizations to help identify areas of strength and weakness when it comes to security protocols and measures. 

It is becoming more apparent to development organizations that the safety and security of employees needs to be a top priority, said Mr. LaRose-Edwards.

But, he added, the non-profit sector is also constantly facing tight and dwindling budgets, and security workshops and education are expensive—although, he pointed out, often not as expensive as lawsuits.  

There is also the need to balance the much-needed training and education of workers, while at the same time, not frightening them by exaggerating the risks. 

Often, he said, the biggest risks lay in the more mundane dangers, such as car accidents and illnesses, which can still be mediated by ensuring that workers have proper medications and by hiring trusted, safe drivers.

Not losing sight of the common sense precautions such as wearing a seatbelt, and telling a driver to slow down, is critical, he added. 

It’s also important to hire the right type of people.