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A World Food Programme (WFP) truck backs up to load food items from a recently landed UN helicopter, in Yida camp, South Sudan AP Photo/Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin

Today honours the aid workers who risk their lives to help others

The profile of aid work had changed in the past number of years – but the threat to workers has increased.

THE CHALLENGES FACING aid workers are acknowledged today on World Humanitarian Day.

Every year, 19 August is a time for people to reflect on the work that aid workers do, and how they often put their own lives in danger to care for others.

In 2012, 272 aid workers were killed, injured or kidnapped helping people, which is significantly more than 10 years ago. The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance in 2013 is 73 million people worldwide.

Taking risks

World Humanitarian Day was designated by the UN General Assembly to coincide with the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, which killed 22 UN staff.

Hans Zomer, Director of Dóchas, the umbrella group of Ireland’s Development NGOs, said that aid workers are “taking real risks to do a good thing to help other people”.

“Today we honour those who risk their lives to help others, but we also want to encourage others to do their bit. On World Humanitarian Day we want to inspire people to consider what they can do to help,” said Zomer.

They are used to working in fragile and insecure environments, but that insecurity would have been aimed at the people we work with or work for. In the last 10 years we have seen aid workers have become targets of violence directly; there have been a number of kidnaps of aid workers.

Incidents such as the US government setting up a fake immunisation programme in the hunt for Osama bin Laden can stoke ill-feeling towards Western aid workers.

“Therefore then it’s not surprising that the people the American government are fighting are saying ‘see all these foreigners are the same, you can’t trust them’,” pointed out Zomer.

Dóchas said that Western Governments have contributed to “a gradual blurring of the lines between relief operations and military interventions” in crises such as Pakistan, Haiti and Iraq.

Also, conflicts in recent years have become more complicated, said Zomer, and aid agencies are being portrayed more and more as being extensions of Western governments. “Our response to that is, well, we’re not. There are internationally agreed humanitarian guidelines and humanitarian law. That is why we always insist on our impartiality as aid agencies.”


The nature of conflict has changed: “In the past, conflicts were reasonably organised conflicts between government or States. We more and more are dealing with complex situations – in Syria or Afghanistan, for example, it is not clear who is combatant and who is civilian.”

The vast majority of aid workers are local people, added Zomer. The latest statistics for 2012 show that there were 207 aid workers who were victims of violence, of which 111 were local staff.

The Irish NGOs in Dóchas employ 4,500 staff worldwide, and vast majority of those would be local staff.

Zomer said that aid workers are increasingly subject to politically motivated violence, or robbery. However, other big killers include traffic accidents and disease.

“You cannot avoid being a target of violence but you can certainly mitigate and prepare for a number of unsafe situations,” said Zomer.

This not only includes transport management, but also security risk management, which is something that NGOs are encouraged to have. As this adds to costs, Dóchas believe people should support NGOs that invest in such security.

“Security” means security for the aid workers themselves, and for the local people aid workers are helping.


Because a lot of aid work “is completely invisible to people in Ireland”, Dóchas has set up an information website,

The type of people that tend to travel from Ireland or Europe as aid workers are people “whose role it is to support and enable those local organisations to do their job well,” said Zomer. This is in contrast to the high number of volunteers from the past.

  • In 2009, 278 humanitarians were victims of security incidents, compared to 65 ten years earlier, in 1999.
  • Of the 92 humanitarian workers kidnapped in 2009, 59 were national staff and 33 international.
  • In 1999, only 20 humanitarians were kidnapped (two nationals and 18 internationals).

Donor funding for NGO security measures has been declining in recent years, making it more difficult for NGOs to invest in staff training and preparation.

To enhance aid worker security, Dóchas members has been working with Irish Aid and international experts to develop new guidelines on risk management.

“These new guidelines help NGOs fulfil their duty of care responsibilities towards their own staff, and highlight existing standards and processes, as well as NGOs’ obligations as employers,” said Zomer.

Column: There has never been a more dangerous time to be an aid worker>

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