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