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12th Apr 2021

Politics and religion problematising aid work

  • The EU wants its flag on aid to be shipments to be seen, but it may be a reason for attacks (Photo: European Commission)

A hundred and two humanitarian workers were killed in 2009 and 92 kidnapped, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which, together with the European Union commemorated their loss during the second World Humanitarian Day on Thursday (19 August).

The work of international humanitarian aid workers relies on acceptance of their neutrality, but the UN says there is an increasing misconception about aid that it is delivered exclusively by Western organisations or is somehow politically or ideologically influenced.

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Although this perception is entirely wrong, the UN writes on the website dedicated to the World Humanitarian Day, it leads to the escalation of targeted attacks on humanitarian personnel. Two hundred and seventy eight aid workers were involved in 139 serious security incidents in 2009, compared with 65 in 34 incidents in 1999, Aid Worker Security Database reported.

According to the study of the Humanitarian Policy Group from April 2009, for many attacks it is difficult to ascertain a motive, but for the incidents where it is possible, political motivation has increased relative to incidents which are purely economically motivated. Politically motivated incidents rose from 29 percent of the known total in 2003 to 49 percent in 2008, the study said.

The "political targeting" has two main reasons: The organisations may be attacked because they are perceived as being "collaborators with the enemy," or the organisation itself may be the primary target for its actions or statements.

The crucial part in providing humanitarian aid is the respect towards local people, says Bijay Kumar, head of Human Security in Emergencies and Conflict at Action Aid, an international anti-poverty agency.

"People are reluctant about foreigners coming from another context," he told this website. When aid workers do not understand local habits, conflicts with people they want to help may emerge.

"We need to design programmes on the peoples' needs", Mr Kumar said. If the aid programme is to work, the community has to have a say in how the resources are used, he added.

Also important when working abroad is transparency of the organisation about its financing and modesty of its employees. People do not like aid workers using big cars or living in mansions, Mr Kumar said.

For her part, Kristalina Georgieva, the commissioner for international co-operation, humanitarian Aid and crisis response, said in a statement on Thursday: "There is an alarming trend to target these dedicated people. We must protect the safety of humanitarian workers so they can work wherever they are needed. To do this, I will continue to raise awareness of the worsening security conditions for those who put their lives at risk to save the lives of others."

The commission has its own launched its own "Don't shoot, I'm a humanitarian worker!" ad campaign focused on the safety of EU staff and parters abroad and funds specific projects with security components in Somalia, Chad, Sudan, Afghanistan and Gaza.

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