Risks and compromises for aid workers: when is enough, enough?

MSF’s withdrawal from Somalia this month raises important questions about what constitute acceptable conditions to work in

By: Hannah Vaughan-Lee

Somali woman in hospital

The history of humanitarian assistance in Somalia is not one of political neutrality. Aid has functioned as an economic and political resource for the last 40 years. Photograph: Handout/Reuters

On 14 August, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced that, after 22 years, it was closing all its activities in Somalia as “the situation in the country has created an untenable imbalance between the risks and compromises our staff must make, and our ability to provide assistance to the Somali people.”

MSF began its operations in Somalia in the early 1990s when the country first became a byword for anarchy and violent chaos. Acknowledging that Somalia “has always been a dangerous place … there’s a limit to what we can accept and the conditions that allow and permit humanitarian assistance in Somalia are no longer there”, including “the structural inability of the Somali leadership and authorities to prevent these incidents from occurring or to address them when they occur”.

That the operating conditions of humanitarian workers have deteriorated to the extent that MSF has chosen to close its programmes throughout the country contrasts starkly with the image of the improved Somalia that has been presented in UN statements and much of the media coverage since the new Somali national government was formed in August 2012. Moreover, MSF’s withdrawal raises critical questions about what aid workers consider as acceptable in order to maintain access to affected populations, as well as the consequences of these choices.

Of the 160 aid workers killed, 82 wounded and 99 kidnapped in Somalia since 1997, the majority have taken place since 2007 (106 killed, 53 wounded and 57 kidnapped), when the overall security environment deteriorated for both humanitarians and Somali civilians. The combination of conflict, economic and climatic crises also led to a dramatic deterioration in humanitarian conditions.

At the same time there was a notable rise in the number of international agencies operating in the country between 2007 and 2010, compared with 2001 to 2006. The combination of the decline in security conditions and increase in humanitarian workers present offers some explanation for the increase in violent incidents.

Humanitarians have also reported a rise in the specific targeting of humanitarian personnel and activities, which they have attributed, in part, to efforts to co-opt humanitarian aid for political and military objectives such as state-building and counterterrorism. While evidence attributing specific targeted attacks to these political agendas has been limited, these concerns have featured in the various statements and debates emerging from the humanitarian sector about reducing the humanitarian presence in Somalia. Yet what is not overtly present in these debates is the question of risk thresholds – when and where do humanitarians draw the line?

There is no standard level of acceptable risk within the humanitarian industry and attitudes towards risk can vary extensively between agencies. Even within individual agencies these attitudes can vary between country missions and at times heavily influenced by the personalities of the leadership. At the same time, flexibility towards standard operating principles and procedures has been considered the cost of doing business in Somalia, such as the practice of using armed guards, which has become the norm in the country.

Increased insecurity has also led many agencies to rely heavily on remote management strategies, where risks are transferred to the field and to local staff. This in turn raises questions as to whether dangers faced by national staff are being sufficiently addressed, especially as national staff make up the majority of humanitarians killed or wounded. At the same time, some humanitarians also question the appropriateness of transferring the risk to national staff and whether the industry is becoming too risk adverse. There also appears to be a lack of clarity as to where the line is.

This also speaks to the issue of “balance” raised by MSF’s withdrawal. Security risks are not the only concerns; there are also the other “compromises” that an organisation may have to make in order to maintain their operations. In Somalia, humanitarian principles have been compromised at times in favour of maintaining access and aid has been subject to political manipulation. While the country made headlines in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s with stories of high rates of aid diversion, regular diversions on a smaller scale have become accepted by many as part of the operational reality.

The history of humanitarian assistance in Somalia is not one of political neutrality, but rather the story of how aid has functioned as an economic and political resource for the last 40 years. This began under Siyad Barre and continued after the collapse of the government when aid was heavily drawn into the political economy of violence. This was not only owing to the economic gains to be had from “protection” payments, aid contracts or diverting aid, but the potential for engagement with international humanitarian agencies to act as a gateway to legitimacy. This is particularly significant in a failed state where access negotiations and security arrangements are more heavily localised than elsewhere. As such, critical questions emerge: what principles are an organisation willing to compromise for safe access? What risks are humanitarian agencies prepared to take to maintain access? Is everyone clear as to what those thresholds are? And in Somalia, where lines and thresholds have been drawn and redrawn, when is enough, enough?

Hannah Vaughan-Lee is finishing a PhD at School of Oriental and African Studies. She is also a humanitarian consultant with experience in Somalia.

Source: The Guardian