′Aid work has become more complex′ | Globalization | DW | 23.08.2012
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'Aid work has become more complex'

Each year, hundreds of aid workers are severely wounded, kidnapped or killed. DW spoke with Michael Reich, World Vision Germany’s Country Program Coordinator for Humanitarian and Emergency Affairs.

DW: Why has the security situation for humanitarian workers worsened over the past years? Can you explain why aid workers are more prone to attacks now?

Michael Reich: On the one hand, aid work has become more complex. It's much more difficult today to say who is a humanitarian worker, who may be affiliated with a military or paramilitary group. The visibility is sometimes tricky. Civil military corporations sometimes blur the differences between purely humanitarian aid and military intervention.

Porträt Michael Reich World Vision Germany

'Aid work has become much more complex,' says Reich

I think to a degree it's also the attractiveness of humanitarian aid workers as targets, they have good resources and they are soft targets, because usually they are not armed, they are not shooting back, so I think many of those reasons play into the fact that the numbers of aid victims have increased.

Would it make sense then to steer away from those cooperations?

It's difficult to say that in a general statement, but I think it has to be very critically analyzed, in each context, if it makes sense, what the risks are, what the gains are, and then decisions have to be made. But it's something that has to be viewed critically. I think it's very important that we see that military actors and humanitarian actors generally have different mandates and have a different style of working, and only under certain circumstances can they cooperate well without mixing things up and without confusing people.

What would be a good example you could think of?

I think in some cases it's a protection issue, in some areas it's very difficult to operate without any form of protection. That can be in a convoy, for example, where sometimes you can't access an area where you want to deliver humanitarian aid without any kind of armed protection.

What happened to the idea to spare neutral relief workers from attacks; because essentially they are there to help anyone in need?

Right, that's a very, very important idea and ideal, which used to be valued very highly, and it seems to me that this has changed, that it is not the same kind of taboo it used to be to attack humanitarian aid workers. But it's essential that politically, and in our society and in dialogue, we keep saying and reminding each other that humanitarian aid workers should not be confused with combatants.

Why is it not regarded as taboo anymore to attack aid workers?

I'm not entirely sure what makes people attack a humanitarian aid worker, but I think generally it would probably be because those aid workers have something they want to get - and it's easy to get it. So it could be either their materials, their cars, their computers, money or whatever, it could be the people themselves.

Kidnapping is one of the major ways of attacking humanitarians and then getting ransoms out of these humanitarian aid workers. And of course sometimes they are perceived as part of an evil system - and you just want to get rid of them, if you are operating under such logic. It's not taboo anymore, and in some cases it even looks attractive to the people who are then attacking humanitarian aid workers.

Suldano Osman, 1, is held by her mother and a hospital worker as a pediatrician attaches a feeding tube to aid in her treatment for malnutrition, at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Dagahaley Camp, outside Dadaab, Kenya, Monday, July 11, 2011. U.N. refugee chief Antonio Guterres said Sunday that drought-ridden Somalia is the worst humanitarian disaster in the world, after meeting with refugees who endured unspeakable hardship to reach the world's largest refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. (Foto:Rebecca Blackwell/AP/dapd)

Humanitatian aid workers around the globe put their lives on the line to help others

Are there areas or regions that are considered especially dangerous?

Yes, especially countries like Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia would be very, very high-risk countries.

And what about the current situation in Sudan or Syria - is it even possible for aid workers to help right now?

It is, but of course it's very, very difficult, and there are high risks associated with that. A very important thing to underline is the highest number of incidents involve local staff, and usually not the expatriate worker. But it would [typically] be a local member of staff, according to the statistics that we see.

You spent three years in Mali yourself, having to leave the country because of the military coup in March. Are there other projects that have been suspended because it had gotten too dangerous for aid workers?

Yes, we had to suspend projects and their activities, for example during the curfew of four days that had been declared by the Junta [in Mali], just after the coup.

It depends a bit on the region and the country that you look at; in the north of course more activities had to be suspended - and many of them still are. In the South of the country, after the curfew had been lifted, we were able to resume activities and are continuing to work there.

Did you personally get into any difficult or dangerous situations while you were abroad?

Yes - roadblocks are always a risk, so if you travel it's risky. If you get into a military check point it's a risky situation. If you get controlled by the police…I was taken to an abandoned police office at one point in time… those are the dangerous situations.

During the curfew in Mali there were people shooting in the air and, with that, stray bullets are a high risk, as we later found out with the bullets that dropped into our garden and onto our car.

So there are situations that are risky, but luckily I never got directly attacked in any way.

What do you think would be the right take on protecting aid workers better in conflict zones?

It's a question of international policy, and international do's and don'ts.

It's the states themselves that carry the main burden of securing a safe environment - well, as safe as possible. It's civil society organizations; it's the common man and woman in the street that need to remind each other of secure space for humanitarian aid workers. It's humanitarian aid organizations, with their policies, recruitment, training and so on. And I think a very important point is the personal preparation; you need to prepare yourself and minimize risks and learn how to behave in insecure environments in order to make it safer for you and for others.

World Vision works globally, aiming to implement development programs and respond in times of emergency. Michael Reich is World Vision Germany's Country Program Coordinator for Humanitarian and Emergency Affairs.

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