With about 280,000 humanitarian aid workers worldwide, the United Nation’s Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that the odds of an aid worker experiencing an attack are 1 in 1,000, making the business of assisting the world’s most vulnerable citizens a very dangerous undertaking.1 The complexity of today’s threat landscape has caused the business of humanitarian action to become more physically dangerous. In 2015 and 2016 alone, 616 aid workers fell victim to violent attacks, 229 of which resulted in death, with the most prevalent acts of intentional violence stemming from armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, IED’s, landmines and assault.2 Overall, the rate of major attacks against aid workers, measured by the number of killings, kidnappings and casualties over the population of aid workers in the field has increased over the past decade in a handful in violent environments. With the highest-risk degree of attacks taking place in: Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, and the Central African Republic.

There are a number of contributing factors, some direct and others indirect, with the most prevalent linkages tied to weak and/or failing states, poor governance and low levels of the rule of law. The proliferation of humanitarian aid organisations and military actors in the field has also raised the question of whether humanitarian actors can act with transparency and neutrality. The blurring of lines between the humanitarian, governmental and military sectors, a result of operational overlap in the field, is one of the main drivers of aid worker insecurity in war torn environments. The increased perception of affiliation with political and/or military entities has eroded public confidence in the impartiality, neutrality and independence of humanitarian actors.3 Thus, civilians and armed non-state actors no longer readily distinguish between neutral humanitarians and reconstruction troops.4 Line blurring in Afghanistan, where the security concerns (i.e. the fear of combat ensuing/recurring) of key aid stakeholders has led to a clustering of humanitarian actors, which has heightened the likelihood of the direct targeting of aid workers.

The civil war in Syria has also hindered efforts to limit/prevent the direct targeting of NGOs. This issue has created problematic security and operational limitations, including cross-border coverage and concentrated response efforts. Threats posed by hostile government forces, rebel groups and terrorist organisations, such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and the Islamic State (IS), have proportionally deteriorated coverage and increased safety and security dangers for aid workers to the extent that the delivery of aid supplies to those in critical need is severely impeded. Line blurring and increased public scrutiny necessitate the need for greater transparency.

Aid workers must therefore fully commit to operating with humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence from foreign and national governments.


The confusion between NGO/humanitarian aid missions and political/military operations denotes the need for a more public commitment to the maintenance and implementation of sound ethical practices and norms. This unfortunate misconception means that aid workers are finding it increasingly difficult and dangerous to gain acceptance, and in many cases, access to populations in need. For example, in some crisis environments the activities of UN integration programs (i.e. political and peacekeeping operations) seemingly mirror humanitarian action. This has played a role in contriving the public understanding of humanitarian efforts, insofar as many see aid agencies as a deeply flawed, externally driven appendage of the nation-building project.5

Corrupt local officials also contribute to insecurity, as they have the means to create distance between society and humanitarian actors. Space serves as a platform for deceit, potentially undermining the ethics and practices of humanitarian aid organisations.6 The efforts of Somali and Afghani government officials, who have routinely accused aid organisations of corrupt practices, such as smuggling weapons, profiting from warlords and insurgents, and undermining the authority of their host governments, is a perfect example of this practice.

Insecurity also stems from the hostile nature of non-state actors and terrorist organisations, and their inclination to chastise humanitarian aid actors for political or strategic gains. Warring parties see aid as an instrument of war and they regard aid workers collectively as part of the opposing force.7 With an increase in threat, harassment and deliberate attacks, some aid organisations have resorted to allowing those who wage war to benefit from ‘the hunger weapon’.8 Here combatants obtain a level of control in relation to whom and where aid supplies are delivered and dispersed and even the black market where they are traded. This has become a lucrative and crucial economic endeavour for a number of terrorist organisations, and includes al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Increased security risk is also a consequence of aid worker action in the field and preparedness, or lack thereof. A shocking number of aid workers are under-prepared for the level of suffering and violence that awaits them in the field. While some organisations have updated policy practices to reflect heightened security concerns, there remains a limited focus on the importance of enhanced mission readiness training. These inadequacies enhance mission and personnel exposure to risk. Fatality statistics show roughly one-third of aid worker deaths occur in the first 90 days, with 1-in-6 deaths occurring within the first 30 days of service.9 Such profound statistics leave little room for debate. It is critical that all aid workers have a firm grasp of the mission’s security environment. Equally, they must be aware of, and committed to, adhering to the organisation’s security and practical standards throughout the duration of their assignment.


The implementation of regular assessments of risks would provide a realistic real-time account of perceived threats to life and mission. Attempts to reduce operational risk should also include relevant mitigation strategies and contingency planning that leans heavily on national partners, local communities, law enforcement, and even in some instances non-state combatants. There is a need for greater thinking in relation to kinetic strategy. Humanitarian aid organisations should explore practices that encourage community involvement, specifically the willingness to provide advice and information on when and how to travel. Additional considerations include: empowering staff to utilise their judgement, observe local practice, and be proactive in soliciting information on who and what is moving along the road.

Mandatory pre-deployment training programmes, for all international and national aid workers, would afford a greater return on mission security. Training programs must include: situational awareness; security policies; adequate understanding of risks in the field, where mock real-world scenario security and resistance exercises should be taught; stress management; and finally, conflict diffusion tactics in the form of communication and negotiating skills. To maintain sustainable security and safety awareness it is highly recommended that all aid organisations also implement monthly refresher briefings for every aid worker active in an operational capacity.

Inter-agency coordination must be bolstered; it is therefore, strongly recommended that all humanitarian aid organisations working within operational proximity engage in a practice of full disclosure of intelligence pertaining to communications, coordination efforts, and all matters of security (i.e. perceived threats, knowledge of an impending attacks etc.). While the logistics of standardizing humanitarian approaches across the whole sector is a difficult undertaking, aid organisations must attempt to mitigate challenges posed by operational line blurring. That said, a uniform code of ethics should be implemented across the sector. Additionally, the development and facilitation of joint-peer (inter-agency) learning and knowledge sharing workshops is also highly recommended. These endeavours will assist with inter-agency relations development, promote sustainable safety and security procedures and policies, and ensure the maintenance of good policy practices. Inter-agency coordination and information sharing is lacking between the different divisions. Aid organisations should enlist private and public sector security consultants to provide real-time intelligence outlining timely threats, something that is rarely passed on to counterparts in the field.


Going forward, humanitarian organisations need a more pragmatic approach to mitigate mission risk. An effective strategic vision should aim to mitigate security risks, enhance preparedness and contingency planning, and most importantly, bolster the organisation’s capacity to deliver aid, regardless of the volatility on the ground. Safety and security is a collective responsibility requiring capacity building with host-nation governments and influencers, as well as sound strategic operational readiness for an array of eventualities.


Originally published by PGW Global


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