Insecure aid workers

Published December 25, 2012

THE Aid Worker Security Report 2012 has grouped Pakistan among the five countries where aid workers face the most attacks.

The other four include Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan. The report was released only a few days before the country witnessed the brutal killings of several anti-polio campaign workers in Karachi and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa within two days.

The reaction of aid agencies like Unicef and the World Health Organisation was the immediate suspension of the immunisation campaign. Pakistan already has an unenviable public image and the country’s security credentials hit rock bottom after the attacks, with such incidents placing more strictures on aid workers.

The aforementioned report mentions that a rising trend of attacks on aid workers has been observed globally in recent years. In 2011, a total of 308 aid workers were killed, kidnapped or wounded, which is 340 per cent higher than the number of victims in 2001.

The victims include both international and local aid workers. In fact, local aid workers are on the higher side, with 280 cases. According to the report some 72 per cent of cases were reported in the aforementioned five countries — all politically unstable and home to chronic conflicts.

Between 2006 and 2010, Pakistan was fifth in the ranking on the number of incidents and sixth in the ranking on murder rates. The grim fact sheet further tarnishes the already battered reputation of the country in the international community.

Since 2005 Pakistan has faced disasters of various types, both natural and man-made. Floods over the last few years have particularly exposed the vulnerability of the country in the throes of climate change.

These disasters displaced millions of people, triggering humanitarian appeals and attention from the international community. Unfortunately, they coincided with protracted conflicts against militants in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which rendered millions of people homeless. Even a highly stable country would be tested by the scale and frequency of such disasters.

The international and local humanitarian community has been relentlessly scrambling to provide aid to people in all corners of the country. Despite the absence of exact numbers, it would not be unrealistic to estimate that humanitarian workers in Pakistan are in the thousands, and include countless unpaid community volunteers.

Political instability, a fragile law and order situation, frail institutions and sociopolitical polarisation make the country a breeding ground for violent elements. These elements find humanitarian workers ‘soft targets’ because of their ubiquitous presence, especially in far-flung areas.

A number of high-profile cases of kidnapping and killing of aid workers occurred in Pakistan in recent years, jeopardising the outreach of humanitarian organisations.

A septuagenarian Swedish female social worker was shot in Lahore and passed away in her home country only a few days ago. A British Red Cross worker, Khalil Rasjed Dale, was killed after being kidnapped in Quetta in April. This constrained the Red Cross to scale down its work in the country. In August, the bodies of three Christian aid workers were recovered. They had been working in Mingora. In 2011, Warren Weinstein, chief of a consulting firm, was abducted by unidentified armed men in Lahore.

The local staff of humanitarian organisations has not been spared either. Several incidents of kidnapping and killing of local aid workers have also been reported. Such incidents have confined foreign staff of aid agencies to hotels and heavily guarded offices. It has also increased the security cost of aid projects, eating into net resources trickling down to the people.

As a result, many international aid agencies have curtailed their foreign staff and at times ceased to operate in certain areas, leaving communities at the mercy of an ineffective government system of rescue and relief.

The political situation is another reason behind restrictions on the international aid community. From visa issues to restricted movement, a number of impediments make it difficult for aid workers to perform their duties.

Considering the vulnerability of the country to natural disasters and its geo-strategic location, Pakistan can ill afford the brazen targeting of aid workers. The occurrence of more disasters and conflicts cannot be ruled out in the near future.

The scale of the risk can be judged from the fact that the Global Climate Risk Index 2013 report has ranked Pakistan as the third most affected country after Thailand and Cambodia due to climate-related disasters.

In terms of human development, the crevasse of unmet targets is further widening. The country is ranked at 145 on the Human Development Index. Most of the Millennium Development Goals are far from being met. In the current year Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan jointly shared 97 per cent of the world’s polio cases.

The state of human development in Pakistan demands sustained humanitarian support to extricate the country from the quagmire of illiteracy and disease. Sustained aid flow requires robust monitoring by international aid agencies to bridge the gaps in human development. This requires a peril-free environment for aid workers to operate.

Crimes against aid workers are being perpetrated by criminal gangs and extremist groups. The conventional solution of providing escorts has not yielded the desired result. Aid agencies avoid accepting escorts as it enhances their visibility, making them further vulnerable.

It is a complex situation where conventional solutions cannot deliver. The security framework needs major overhauling to restore the confidence of aid workers who are doing commendable service for the people of Pakistan. Political stability, enforcement of law and better governance are the key ingredients of the solution.

Pakistan needs to urgently address the issue of security for aid workers before it is too late.

The writer is chief executive of Strengthening Participatory Organization.



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