Protecting the Protectors:The Need to Secure our Humanitarian Missions

in Program

By Nancy Langer – It was early morning when Stephen Vance and his driver headed out of a prosperous enclave known as University Town in the capital of Pakistan’s volatile northwest region. Gunmen with automatic weapons were waiting and easily cut both down. The brutal murders, followed the next day by the abduction of an Iranian diplomat in Peshawar, give many people pause about Vice-President-elect Joe Biden’s call for $15 billion in additional civilian assistance to Pakistan.

The fact is, it’s a daunting problem – how exactly do you deploy America’s human capital for ambitious change projects like countering Taliban and Al Qaeda values in the tribal belt when the risks are so high?

The Bush Administration lurched between two contradictory positions on this human resource challenge. Diplomats were held back-they allowed the military to take on wide sweeps of new duties on humanitarian and development missions, hired mostly national staff and farmed out many risky assignments to nongovernmental organizations. Secretary Rice tried to reverse that trend by insisting that all Foreign Service officers were obligated by their oath of office to go to places like Iraq.

The next US Administration has the opportunity to craft a more coherent policy of development for collapsed spaces inside Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo, Somalia and the rest, one that holistically ties security to aid. First, the Obama team must honestly calculate returns against investment before they take on complicated public diplomacy, stability operations, or peace building jobs. Second, they must recognize that 21st century humanitarian and development missions carry high human and security costs. Stephen Vance, for example, left four children.

Research shows that insurgent actors perpetrate violent attacks on humanitarian personnel at high rates – one recent study said such attacks accounted for 87 percent of aid worker deaths globally. Increasingly, non-UN agency and non-US government civilian personnel are the ones who are killed, with national staff bearing the highest costs. There’s a reason for this.

When insurgents blew apart the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August of 2003, many senior UN managers personally knew those who died, such as Sergio Vieira de Mello. Five years later, the UN will pull expatriate personnel out of hot zones earlier and is more cautious about deploying staff in the first place. This summer in Sudan, for example, when a ragtag group of rebels made a gambit for Khartoum, the High Commissioner for Refugees flew personnel with families out of the country, including those living in the capital, and never returned them.

When I’ve been to the world’s most dangerous outposts – like Eastern Chad, where roving groups of militias and bandits mix a confusing stew of violence – what I’ve seen is a limited or siege US and UN presence, NGO groups like Medecins Sans Frontieres there for the cause, contractors of all stripes there for the money, and national staff nervously eying the exit. There is little security investment or infrastructure. For example, Eastern Chad did not have enough small planes to evacuate all aid workers.

The Obama Administration will be well-served to face these field challenges squarely. Among steps for success: better long-term and short-term security planning; delegating spending authority for security purchases, including training, to the field; making cross-training by civilian and military personnel bound for conflict zones where aid missions are taking place de rigueur; and focusing on big investments like satellite voice and data systems, lightly armored vehicles, and planes, making sure the stuff actually ends up in danger zones.

Without these kinds of investments, along with a frank acknowledgement of the risks aid workers take, we will be sending more good people off to work – and into harm’s way.

Photo courtesy of on Flickr:

Nancy Langer is the Director of External Relations at the Stimson Center.

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices