Article September 20, 2017

Why do armed fighters attack aid workers?

We’ve previously posted a piece on the threat of kidnapping and violence against aid workers around the world, specifically Yemen due to the ongoing and increasingly vicious conflict in the region. It is an undeniable and unfortunate fact that aid workers are at risk, whether they are foreign employees or foreign staffers. But why are they?

Objectively, it’s hard to understand how anyone could see them as legitimate targets – they are protected under international law, humanitarian aid helps the local population, and most if not all aid organisations pledge to be impartial and unbiased in their distribution of assistance. So a recent study by Humanitarian Outcomes provides some really interesting perspective on the motivations and reason for attacks on aid workers – directly from fighters in militant organisations.

One thing is clear – the reasons are complex and varied, with interviewees stating religious, political, economic and cultural motivations, as well as (perhaps most chillingly) sheer thrill-seeking incentives. Some reasons are clearly based on misunderstanding, and as such arguably easier to counter through educational initiatives. Others are quite a bit more difficult to counteract, often because aid organisations do not do themselves any favours in the way they operate at times. For instance, the suspicion some research respondents voiced about aid workers being clandestine operatives of outside governments or the nebulous ‘West’ is difficult to ease if humanitarian organisations work surreptitiously (albeit in the interest of security) or in tandem with government- or military-led campaigns.

All this combines to paint a rather bleak picture of the future of aid workers’ security – there is no easy fix and any potential initiative for countering aggression will take time and plenty more resources. What remains is the need for thorough plans, a deep understanding of local conditions, security detail on the ground, … and yes, also insurance. Because the latter will provide organisations with the resources to launch immediate incident response and accelerate the rescue of its staff.

Read more about this on the NPR news website here: