The Future of Humanitarian Work In War-Torn Countries


Humanitarian aid workers have increasingly been targeted for attacks by terror-related organizations. On January 25th, 2018, non-governmental organization (NGO) Save the Children confirmed that four of its staff had been killed in an assault that targeted their office in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, claiming the lives of six aid workers. Carried out by a suicide bomber and militants associated with the so-called Islamic State, the radicals stormed the building in a 10-hour long assault on Wednesday 24th. This is not an isolated incident, Al Jazeera reports that local governments have become increasingly arduous and intolerable of humanitarian groups, additionally militant groups often refuse to acknowledge the neutrality of aid workers operations.

The Aid Worker Security organization’s 2017 report, “Behind the attacks: A look at the perpetrators of violence against aid workers,” recounts that 101 aid workers were killed in 2016, across 158 major attacks against aid providing organizations. The organization concludes that non-state actors often target humanitarian actors as a method of dominating populations and delegitimizing the local democratic government. Al Jazeera details that attacks on aid groups have grown in occurrence but are spoken about less, once being reported as “unconscionable” and now as “regrettable but expected.”

Non-state actors, often insurgent or terrorist groups, are largely accountable for deaths of humanitarian aid workers during aid operations. Unexpectedly, data presented by Aid Worker Security reports that states are responsible for the majority of aid workers deaths, revealing that in 2015 and 2016, state actors were responsible for the death of 54 aid workers. While certain actions of states often prove to cause more harm than not, as validated by the high volume of deaths of aid workers, the causes of death are unintentional and mainly caused by airstrikes by both Russia and the US, as well as state-sponsored violence. In contrast, insurgent non-state actors regularly target aid workers, whom they perceive as potential threats to their mission and power. State actors must work to both reduce their direct contribution to the death toll of aid workers, whilst simultaneously offering local military protection to humanitarian workers on the ground, therefore reducing the likelihood of careless airstrikes and military operations being carried out by the states themselves.

Attacks on aid workers occur in nearly all war zones. In 2016 there were 158 reported attacks on aid workers, nearly triple the amount of attacks than in 2003 when 63 attacks were reported. South Sudan remains the world’s most dangerous place to work in the aid field, ABC News reports that 95 people have been killed since the conflict began in December 2013. In 2017 alone, the UN reports that violence in the unstable state reached a high of 28 deaths. Ambassador of Canada to South Sudan, Alan Hamson, commented to The Associated Press, that “it is vital” that the South Sudanese government facilitate “safe secure, free, consistent, predictable and unhindered” environments for aid workers to provide the critical assistance people require. This message must be heard by all states suffering from war, as well as states involved in the conflict and consequently contributing to the rising death tolls.

Attacks on humanitarian aid workers have become what Al Jazeera references as a “disturbing trend.” Afghanistan Analyst, Hashmatallah Moslih, worries that Save the Children will remove themselves from the Afghan conflict if the government cannot provide protection for the aid workers, a trend that will likely arise amongst all aid organization’s suffering from attacks. South Sudan, Afghanistan and Syria are recognized as the most dangerous countries for humanitarians. There is a direct correlation between the most dangerous states for aid groups to work and states where aid groups are critically needed, a correlation that non-state actors recognize and exploit. Governments of war-torn countries often rely on international and local humanitarian aid workers to provide basic services to their citizenry. Without the guarantee of protection for humanitarians on the ground, the local populations will continue to suffer, and death tolls will continue to rise.

Zoe Knight