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Why Humanitarians’ Work Is Getting Deadlier, and How They Survive

What is eroding the crucial idea that aid providers in war zones are neutral? Second of two.

By Stefan Labbe 2 Aug 2017 | OpenCanada

Stefan Labbé is an independent journalist whose writing, photography and documentary work have been featured in the Guardian, the Globe and Mail and PBS NewsHour, among others.

[Editor's note: To read the first half of this series, go here.]

In 1994, the slaughter of over 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda and the ensuing conflict precipitated a massive exodus of Hutu civilians. They fled to the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo. Among them were commanders of the Hutu Power movement and the Interahamwe, a mob of genocidal executioners.

Humanitarian organizations responded in ways typical back then: evacuate the conflict zone, set up at a border area and wait for refugees. Medical and food aid workers, including members of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders, set up on the DRC side of the border and began handing out millions of dollars of aid.

But when MSF France pulled out, saying their work was propping up the Hutu militias and letting them regroup, the humanitarian world took a hard look in the mirror. People began to challenge the idea that humanitarians could be neutral. Ultimately, Tutsi forces from Rwanda invaded the DRC, an event that precipitated what some have described as “Africa’s World War.”

Since then, MSF has become one of the biggest NGOs in the world, not only because of the kind of work it does, but because it has fiercely hung onto a sense of neutrality, according to Abby Stoddard, who coordinates research on international humanitarian action at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.

“[MSF workers] tend to be in the places where many others are not. When you have a field hospital that can treat trauma patients from the local community, but also any fighting forces from any side, that's going to be accepted by the Taliban,” she said.

Offering medical services to all sides has allowed organizations like MSF and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent to negotiate their way into active conflict zones where people are most vulnerable. But this is also seen by governments in Afghanistan and Syria as going too far in aiding the enemy. “In a sense, they’re at risk from both sides,” said Stoddard. “It’s a very difficult situation to be in.”

As tallied in yesterday’s piece in this two-parter, humanitarian workers are increasingly targeted for attack in hot spots around the world. According to NYU's Center on International Cooperation, between 1997 and 2001, the number of humanitarian workers killed, kidnapped or wounded never exceeded 100 globally, per year. But by 2013, that number had jumped to 475, including 156 deaths, and since then the annual carnage has hovered at four times the 2001 level.

A series of bombings targeting MSF hospitals in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen prompted a UN resolution calling for better protection of humanitarian workers, the UN secretary general declaring: “These attacks are evidence of a broader trend: parties to conflict are treating hospitals and health clinics as targets, rather than respecting them as sanctuaries.”

The risks increase as humanitarian workers find themselves operating for years, even decades in places where fighting drags on with no clear end in sight. Today, big development and aid organizations have come to a consensus that you can’t wait for a crisis to end to start doing development.

“Before it was just, ‘Keep these people alive, give them food, water, shelter, try to get some latrines set up and the camp managed, and we’ll try to address their situation when they go back to their country and build schools,’” said Lauryn Oates, a free-lance development worker who for the past 13 years has split her time between Vancouver and Afghanistan. Now people understand that many of these “in-country” conflicts take generations to wind down, with many displaced people living in camps for decades.

“The figures are there,” MSF’s international president Joanne Liu told OpenCanada earlier this year. “We have 65 million people in forced displacement, 20 million of them are refugees and about 40 to 45 million are internally displaced people.”

War on terror ushered ‘huge’ change

Stoddard says the biggest pivot for humanitarian security occurred with the advent of the war on terror. In agreement is Michael O’Neill, a veteran global aid worker who was Save the Children’s senior director of global safety and security. “When an entity like the United States says neutrality is only useful as long as we say it’s useful, that we can discard it when it no longer serves our purposes — that was huge,” said O’Neill.

In the humanitarian world, Liu calls this the “fear factor.”

“There’s this fear, with the war on terrorism, that the enemy seems to be everywhere, and that gives a license to abuse, a license to kill, and to cross red lines that used to not be crossed as often, like bombing a hospital, like not protecting a refugee.”

That fear, according to O’Neill, is bound up in the rhetoric around “with us or against us”; the co-opting of the humanitarian agenda to win hearts and minds; and the idea that foreign agencies and militaries could reward people who collaborate. “One village provides intelligence about the location of militants and they get a food distribution. The other one doesn’t, and they don’t. That’s not humanitarian by any stretch of the imagination,” said O’Neill.

O’Neill also points to private security companies camouflaging themselves as humanitarian workers in Iraq; Colin Powell in Afghanistan referring to the humanitarian community as “force-multipliers” for a “common mission”; and Richard Holbrooke in Pakistan saying that NGOs provide 90 percent of the intelligence in Pakistan. “We don’t need this,” said O’Neill. “First of all, it’s not true.”

Much of the problem, according to O’Neill, is bound up in the 3D approach — where development and diplomacy fall under the aegis of defence, the least qualified sector to oversee the process. This is where the line between humanitarian work and military intervention really starts to blur.

“Development cannot be a manipulation. Building stuff is not development, it’s construction,” said O’Neill. For him, the heart of development work is helping people reach their potential. But if you are manipulating people by rewarding them for collaboration, they instead become dependent on your largesse. Those not willing to play the game get shut out.

In Afghanistan, the 3D approach manifested itself through the creation of Provincial Reconstruction Teams, something O’Neill said helped paint a target on the backs of humanitarian workers. According to him, combining military strategic activities with relief and development work confuses people as to who is an armed actor and who is not. “What’s the difference between chemonics.com and savethechildren.org? Who’s going to make that distinction in Mazar-i-Sharif? Some Taliban guy standing at a checkpoint, seeing another white Land Cruiser going by with a logo on it in English?”

Stoddard said the groups that ended up working with the PRTs were mostly for-profit contractors that basically became arms of the U.S. government or military. “They had very heavy armed protection and it was a whole different ball game for those people,” she said. The PRTs are no longer there, and even though the conversation around military-humanitarian collusion has dried up, humanitarian workers are still struggling with the partnership’s violent legacy.

While in Afghanistan the PRT system further confused the idea of humanitarian neutrality, in American halls of justice another front emerged with the signing of post-9/11 counter-terrorism laws. Today, NGOs are still hesitant to engage with local stakeholders, despite the 2009 Supreme Court ruling in the United States of America Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, which sought to clarify what material support to terrorism encompasses. “It makes them fearful to speak to the parties that they have to speak to in order to guarantee their safety and negotiate access,” said Stoddard.

Stoddard advocates for a broad humanitarian exemption from laws that fold aid and development work into the realm of material support to terrorism. Instead of blanket regulations that make it impossible to reach out and speak to key people on the ground, she said the onus should be on the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control to prove an organization is trying to divert money towards terrorist groups.

Under the Obama administration, the U.S. government started the Partner Vetting System, a pilot program that forces any organization looking for support from USAID to vet their local partners. In Afghanistan and a handful of other countries, NGOs will have to give bios and backgrounds on anyone working under their umbrella. It is meant to hedge against diverting U.S. resources to terrorist groups. “But what the NGOs have said is that this actually endangers [them] because it feeds into the narrative that [they] are all spies for the U.S. government,” said Stoddard.

RwandaMedicalTent.jpg
‘There’s this fear, with the war on terrorism, that the enemy seems to be everywhere, and that gives a license to abuse, a license to kill, and to cross red lines that used to not be crossed as often, like bombing a hospital, like not protecting a refugee.’ Illustration for OpenCanada.org by Sami Chouhdary, Centre for International Governance Innovation.

An ideological divide often runs lockstep with a generational gap, the younger generation influenced by the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Lauryn Oates is of that generation of aid workers who arrived post-Rwanda, post-9/11. For her cohort, security is a way of life, and neutrality is never taken for granted. Oates said the ones that stay are the ones that understand long-term commitment to a specific region allows you to work safely. But for those who hold neutrality as the basis for staying safe, the rotation of workers keeps humanitarians from taking sides. This divide was thrown into sharp relief a year ago in northern Afghanistan.

In the fall of 2015, Taliban forces overran the northern city of Kunduz. As Afghan and U.S. forces attempted to take back the city, an MSF hospital was targeted and bombed by a U.S. warplane. Of the 42 killed, 14 were MSF staff members. Some have claimed that the Afghan security forces on the ground intentionally gave false co-ordinates to U.S. forces as retribution for the hospital treating Taliban fighters.

Oates recognizes the bombing as a horrible accident, but stops short of fixing this mistake into a wider attitude of western military aggression towards humanitarian neutrality. “In the case of Kunduz, that wasn't something that NATO wanted to happen. That was devastating for them from a PR perspective. It led to a lot of changes.” She said that ISAF took a number of proactive steps to make sure an attack like that wouldn’t happen again.

On the other hand, Oates said, the Taliban intentionally attack humanitarian targets. “When they do take out a clinic or a school — which they do absolutely routinely — there’s no internal protocol changes. We’re dealing with two fundamentally different beasts.”

For Oates, you can’t compare the coalition with Taliban forces and other insurgent groups because the latter don’t have the same stake in protecting civilian populations. “That said, it’s not like we put a NATO flag on our office and say, ‘We’re with them,’” said Oates. “But realistically, we have to recognize that one side is trying to kill us and the other is not, though they make mistakes sometimes.”

In an environment where a majority of the killings and property damage is committed by one side, neutrality is a myth, according to Oates. “The Taliban are fascists, they’re murderers and they are destroying the country. As a humanitarian, you should pick a side of the fence on that one.” For her, that means looking at the environment, picking your battles, and constantly asking yourself: what is the maximum we can deliver here without selling our souls?

But staying out of harm’s way in Afghanistan is getting increasingly more difficult. For years during the occupation, the biggest threats were roadside bombs. Oates and her colleagues would monitor roads, try to keep movement down in the mornings when bombs would usually go off, and stay clear of military convoys. But just when they figured out how to deal with roadside bombs, the Taliban switched to complex attacks, detonating a bomb at the gate of a compound and then following that up with gunmen inside the walls, for example.

“The irony is that the harder time the Taliban have, the worse it gets for us,” said Oates. As the Taliban are weakened by direct military engagement and targeted assassinations, life gets worse for the average person, according to her. Part of this is because commanders have a hard time controlling their people in the field — especially when regional leaders and fighters are killed and replaced by younger and more hot-headed recruits.

Security in Taliban strongholds also depends on who the shadow governor is. “We’ve heard some things the leadership have told them, like, ‘Stop blowing up schools. It’s not making us look good. Stop murdering and beheading innocent civilians,” said Oates. But the Taliban leadership is in Quetta, their Pakistani stronghold. So when local leaders disobey orders, the leadership stands by their subordinates’ decisions because they don’t want it to look like there is a lack of internal cohesion. In the end, you have some Taliban commanders who are more interested in attacking Afghan soldiers and police, but others that consider any organization linked to foreigners as fair game.

The new realities of staying alive

Whether or not humanitarians manage to convince warring sides of their neutrality, aid and development are not going to stop. So in this changing landscape, what do experts and aid workers say are the keys to upping their chances for survival?

Whether it’s the “bunkerization” of compounds, providing armed guards and armoured vehicles, or building acceptance in a community, these old rules are continuously being adapted as they go. Over the last dozen years, Oates said she has tried them all, and while she overwhelmingly prefers to work under the radar through an acceptance approach, in Afghanistan, she said it’s not enough.

Oates works for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. After the group’s driver was attacked by militiamen on a country road, and then several shootings in Oates’ neighbourhood, security protocols at Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan were restructured. Everyone in the organization has a list of emergency numbers in their phone; they regularly run mock attacks to practice lockdown procedures; and they have reinforced steps to disengage with aggressors in multiple situations.

“You look at that situation and think, ‘What would I do?’” said Oates. “But you can’t do that in this situation because they are behaving irrationally.” After decades of war, humanitarian workers have to assume the absolute worst because Afghan society is very traumatized and uneducated, so people’s behaviour is unpredictable, according to Oates. “A lot of the cases of violence here are not about the insurgency at all. It’s just people being kind of fucked up and you don’t know what they'll do next.”

Even though Oates rejects the idea of being neutral, she still would rather stay safe with her ear to the ground than with an armed mercenary at her side. She said that security personnel and program staff have totally different missions — one is keeping staff alive and safe, the other is delivering services. In her experience, humanitarian organizations often don’t have a good internal discussion about finding a balance.

“In these big UN agencies, they’re often concerned about liability, so if they can just keep you in one place behind a wall, that’s what their interest is,” said Oates. But, she asked, “At what point are we not really delivering that service, when we’re so restricted in how we operate and move that there’s actually no point in us being here?”

‘The others have gone home’

Last year, Oates was on a trip to the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. When she and her colleagues locked themselves up for 48 hours in a basement pool hall, it was not because of the beer, or even the soccer championship between Afghanistan and India blaring from the TV.

A cacophony of sirens, gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades roared about 500 metres away. The Indian consulate was under attack.

Every now and then Oates and her pool-playing colleagues would pause briefly to look at each other. Then they kept playing. “It’s scary for a few minutes, and then, it’s just the new normal — you’re playing billiards in the basement and kind of tuning out the gunfire,” she said. “You want to be scared in those kinds of situations.” This, falling into apathy, is what scares Oates the most.

But this new normal means the security situation is getting worse. When asked what her breaking point is, Oates’ usually warm manner wrenches into a stoic resolve.

“You can throw anything at us and we’re staying. The others have gone home. It’s a tougher environment now, but at the end of the day, you have the real-deal people left.”

Find the first part of this two-part series here. Thanks for permission to publish from OpenCanada.org, where this piece originally appeared.  [Tyee]

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