Security of Aid Workers: What about National Staff?

Humanitarian aid work has never been more dangerous. A record number of aid workers were attacked and killed last year, whilst the past couple of months have been especially sobering: five humanitarians were killed by airstrikes or gunfire in Gaza, two shot dead in Afghanistan, six murdered by militia in South Sudan and many others dead from Ebola in West Africa.

But is enough being done to protect national staff?

According to the Aid Worker Security database, a staggering 401 out of 460 humanitarian victims of violence in 2013 were national staff.  This is not an anomaly: since 2003, 84% of victims have been national staff. Local humanitarian workers are inarguably those most at risk.

An organisation may provide some security training to their personnel- but does this include guards, cleaners, community volunteers? Those at the bottom of the staffing ladder are easily overlooked, but surely are no less deserving. In fact, lower grade support staff or field workers may often be living in similar poverty to those people INGOs are seeking to help.

As emphasised in the Aid Worker Security Report 2011, it is a false assumption to think that a nationals avoid danger because they aren’t visibly foreign – local staffers just face different risks than internationals.

They may be refugees themselves; their families or friends may be living in serious danger. It is local staff who continue to provide emergency relief when the situation is deemed too dangerous for expats.

In situations of ethnic conflict, staff perceived to be ‘working for’ the wrong ethnicity can be targeted with death threats or worse.  Six NGO workers were murdered in South Sudan this July, identified and killed because of their ethnicity.

Yet there is often a disparity in the level of support national staff receive.

The most obvious is the evacuation policies of most INGOs- all international and relocated staff (national staff who have moved from another part of the country) will generally be evacuated when in immediate danger; whilst those local to the area will be left behind, in the assumption that they have a more nuanced grasp of the context, and can protect themselves better. This is an ethical as much as an operational issue.

However, safety does not just entail conflict-related threats – but a much wider gamut of dangers including disease or accident.

The allowances and structures that help to mitigate these are often misleadingly labelled ‘staff benefits’, encompassing medical expenses and support for field travel or communications. This is wildly inaccurate: these are essential security requirements, not extraneous niceties. Providing a staff member with a mobile phone and calling credit when travelling to remote or dangerous areas enables them to communicate problems as they occur. Comprehensive travel expenses ensure that staff use the safest means of transport, rather than the cheapest.

Yet international staff are often the ones who can call in the biggest per diems and ‘benefit’ packages. An INGO in one conflict-stricken east African country paid its international staff a monthly medical allowance double that of national staff. In a similarly fragile south Asian state, an INGO does not provide any of its field staff with mobile phones.

Why? I assume it differs from one INGO and country programme to another, but by mislabelling these as HR issues and/or expenses, not paying them can be justified by arguments such as- keeping pay in line with local salary scales; limited budget lines. International staff are generally also better aware of their rights, and have the confidence and/or backup of head office to demand these as employment requirements.

Minimum security requirements should not be thinly disguised as HR benefits, expenses or luxury add-ons. They are exactly that: minimum duty of care requirements to help keep staff alive, safe and in good health.

At a time when the number of aid workers are increasing; and the threats we face are ever more real – we need to look not just at why and how these threats are affecting aid work; but how organisations are evaluating and responding to them, and whether it is sufficient.

It is time that humanitarian organisations take a long, hard look at the way they protect their national staff. Are we really doing enough?

Video: ICRC http://vimeo.com/45068341

Interested in security? Also see our series on risk to aid workers: Part One and Part Two.

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4 thoughts on “Security of Aid Workers: What about National Staff?

  1. As always, this created a lively discussion in the Aidleap bunker. Here were two of our comments, and the response:
    1) Do you think INGOs are justified in paying different rates to national and international staff? If so, why are they not justified in providing different levels of other benefits?
    2) I guess the main justification for different levels of benefits is by reference to the question “what would have happened if the person hadn’t started working for the INGO”. The implicit responsibility of the INGO is to take the staff member up to the level of risk that they would have had otherwise, but not further. For an expat, coming from a safe country with a good free medical system, this level is obviously higher than someone who lives in a remote region of South Sudan to begin with. This doesn’t justify every discrepancy (for example, you need to provide phones to all staff travelling in remote regions, because they wouldn’t be travelling if you hadn’t sent them there) but does justify some (for example, differences in evacuation procedures and different medical benefits.) Do you agree with that?

    • 1. Yes I think they are justified in paying different rates to staff- because that is a salary issue, and it is necessary to navigate a fine line between sticking to appropriate local salary scales and not negatively affecting the market, whilst not actually exploiting employees by paying them too little. But the point that I try to make in the blog is that some things labelled ‘benefits’ are NOT HR issues, but a security/safety one- these are are erroneously labelled and should actually be considered security e.g. providing a phone and calling credit to field staff, or a standard minimum medical allowance for all staff.

      2. I don’t agree with your starting premise. I believe it should be – ‘what, as an organisation, is our minimum duty of care to our employees, according to our mandate and ethical operating principles?’. The premise ‘what would have happened if xx hadn’t starting working for the company’ is deeply inequitable as well as completely relative, and one that would only serve to perpetuate existing power divisions – and doesn’t recognise the responsibility of an employer to their employees. A person could be unemployed or homeless before they start with an organisation; what they receive in terms of basic employment rights should not be give relative to their prior condition. Otherwise you could take it in all sorts of weird directions i.e. argue that an American working for an international organisation should be given (the far more restrictive) American maternity leave agreements; whilst a Scandinavian working for the same would receive the 2 years or whatever they are allowed. I think an organisation that purports to be international, should set its own minimum standards for all its staff – this is focussing specifically on what I consider safety and security issues – relevant to the particular country programme and context. If it is deemed necessary to have a mobile phone to operate safely; then all staff working in xx area should be given a mobile phone. If the threat of malaria or other medical conditions affecting staff is considered high, then all staff should be given an equal allowance.

  2. Reblogged this on Conversations I Wish I Had and commented:
    “As emphasised in the Aid Worker Security Report 2011, it is a false assumption to think that a nationals avoid danger because they aren’t visibly foreign – local staffers just face different risks than internationals.

    They may be refugees themselves; their families or friends may be living in serious danger. It is local staff who continue to provide emergency relief when the situation is deemed too dangerous for expats.”

  3. Pingback: Last Week Today: 26 September 2014 | WhyDev

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