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Staying safe part 1

Is being an aid worker dangerous?

Aid work is not risk free

Aid work is not risk free – Indonesia, 2002

I get this question a lot, and unfortunately there is no simple answer. Regrettably we don’t have good actuarial statistics about aid workers, we don’t even really know how many there are in the world, let alone how many get hurt or killed every year. I do a periodic literature survey on this though, and you can read my most recent one here.

Data from 2009 showed that deaths of humanitarian workers were around 2.4 per 10,000, down from 2.7 in 2006. To put that in perspective, the UK Bureau of Labour Statistics for 2006 claims that for fisherman the figure is around 15 per 10,000, for a roofer it’s about 3 per 10,000, and for truck drivers around 2.7. So, at first blush, in 2009 the answer to the question ‘how dangerous is relief and development work’ looks like it was ‘a bit safer than driving a truck for a living’, however, that’s not the full story.

  1. I wouldn’t entirely trust my weight to the figures in these studies. We don’t really know the total number of aid workers in the world, and there is no systematic reporting system for incidents. The data in some of those studies is also a little old now.
  2. The rate of attacks, and the number of deaths and injuries, appears to leap up between 2006 and 2009 – if that trend continued it would be extremely concerning.
  3. The study I think most of on this suggests that 60% of incidents in 2009 happened in three places (Darfur, Afghanistan and Somalia). Now, I’m sure the specifics change year by year, but the take-home here is that not all aid-workers are equally at risk – where you are makes a HUGE difference, and some places are clearly much more dangerous than others.
  4. Who you are matters. Risk profiles can change depending on where you are from and what you look like, as well as how the organization you are with is viewed locally.
Conflict zones require very different precautions than regular environments

Conflict zones require very different precautions than regular environments – Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1997

The 2012 Humanitarian Outcomes report on aid worker security (linked below) shows a similar picture, with rates of violence once again climbing in 2011 after declining in 2010. Again most attacks take place in a small number of states (Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Pakistan and Sudan). interestingly HO conclude that the rates of deaths of humanitarian aid workers seems to be independent of the prevailing murder rate in the country.

So, how dangerous is aid work? We can’t answer that question in a definitive way. People do die and get hurt doing this, and in some places attacks on and crime against aid workers is on the rise. Roads are dangerous in many places where development agencies work, and people die and get hurt in traffic accidents. Some places do seem to be quite risky (a quick survey of New York Times headlines for the last year will tell you which ones). Is being an aid worker in those places is as risky as being a North-Sea fisherman? I don’t know.

One observation that I would make however is that most humanitarian workers work outside of these hot-spots, and many are lucky enough to go their entire careers without encountering a serious security or safety incident. You should take security and safety very seriously, do your homework, and understand the ways to reduce the risk, but my personal take is that you should not become paralyzed by fear. The best numbers that we have suggest that globally, the risk is not orders of magnitude higher than many other professions.

Resources for staying safe

Specific advice on how to manage your safety and security is beyond the scope of this blog. You will need to research the places you are visiting specifically, and make educated decisions about how to keep yourself safe. What I can do here is point you towards the best resources I know:

  • Koenraad Van Brabant’s ‘Operational Security in Violent Environments‘ is still the foundational text on NGO security management. It isn’t a personal security guide, but it will give you an insight into how pretty much all INGOs manage their security these days. Order a hard copy or download it free. You’ll sometimes hear the book called the ‘GPR8’, because it is the eighth Good Practice Review published by the Humanitarian Practice Network. It’s well worth checking out their other publications.
  • Staying Alive‘ by David Lloyd Roberts is a pocket-sized book from the ICRC is very much a conflict zone survival guide for humanitarians. It is well worth a look, but it fills a pretty specific niche and focused very much on tactical approaches to security in extreme conditions. Order copies or download it for free.
  • The Register of Engineers for Disaster Response (REDR) does excellent training on all aspects of security and safety, all over the world. It is well worth going to one of more of their personal security and security management trainings.


Four wheel drives can help with access and safety, but carry their own risks

Four wheel drives can help with access and safety, but carry their own risks

For most of us, the most dangerous thing about aid work is cars. Many of the places we work have much higher rates of death and injury from car crashes than the western world. Some of this is genuinely to do with lower standards of training for driving, some of it is quality and maintenance of vehicles, some of it is lack or (or lack of use of) safety features like seat-belts, and some of it is people being unfamiliar with how large powerful 4wds handle. A few tips:

  • Always, always, always wear your seatbelt. Even if no one else does, even if the driver takes it as a personal insult, even if it is inconvenient, even if you have to get rid of the car you rented and find another one because there is no seat belt. Sooner or later you are likely to be in a crash, and seat-belts do save lives. There is a huge temptation to adopt local practice of not wearing them – don’t do this.
  • If you can avoid driving, especially in your first few months in a new country, avoid it. Rent a car with a driver, or encourage your local staff to drive. They grew up with the rules of the road in that country, and are familiar with the conditions.
  • If you have to drive, take it easy, drive more slowly than you think is necessary, leave more space between you and the car in front than you think you need, drive defensively. Make sure you have a license that is recognized locally and that you have insurance, including liability insurance. Make sure you understand the cultural consequences of being in a car crash – in some places in the world there can be serious mob-justice issues if you injure or kill someone in a car accident. Don’t think this couldn’t happen to you.
  • Traffic rules and norms may be quite different to those in your home country

    Traffic rules and norms may be quite different to those in your home country

    If you don’t know how to drive a manual (stick shift) car, learn before you leave home. In most places outside of the US manuals are the standard, and nearly all 4WDs are manual.

  • If you don’t know how to drive  a 4WD, learn before you leave home. You can take a course in off-road driving that will help you operate these fast, powerful, and potentially dangerous vehicles more safely. One of the most common misconceptions about them is that because they have powerful engines they must corner like race-cars. On the contrary, they have a tendency to roll. The UNHCR 4WD manual can be downloaded free here.

What about women?

I get asked a lot whether I think that women are particularly at risk as aid workers, or traveling in the developing world. Again, unfortunately, the answer is that we don’t really know. Obviously women are subject to slightly different patterns of violence than men, but how much this is any different from if you were living in New York City or Baltimore I really don’t know. It’s not clear that, aside from slightly different patterns of violence, women are at more risk than men, in fact some data suggests the opposite. The best advice I can give you is that you speak to expatriate women who live and work in the place you are interested in and get specific contextual advice from them. Follow the same rules of common sense that you would in any unfamiliar place.

Further Reading

  • Aid Worker Security Report 2012: Host states and their impact on security for humanitarian operations.
  • ‘Sharing the Front Line and the Back Hills: International Protectors and Providers : Peacekeepers, Humanitarian Aid Workers and the Media in the Midst of Crisis’ – Danieli, is a collection of accounts of violence in relief work along with reports of the most recent research into managing the psychological effects.
  • Patronus Analytical is an interesting NGO security blog.
  • Nicholas Kristof writes a funny New York Times article that contains some good advice on evading banditry and other annoyances in the developing world.
  • A little thai goes a long way – a personal take on aid work, with some posts on security issues.
7 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul permalink
    March 8, 2012 1:53 am

    I really appreciate everything you have discussed on this site. I am trying to find a job doing aid work around the world, particularly in Africa, and I have found everything you mentioned so far not only informative but possibly invaluable to my search for what to do and where to go first. I know this is why I am here on this earth and I intend to do something about it. Thank you for taking the time to write about your experiences and things you have learned along the way. I understand that this line of work can be dangerous, even more vividly after reading everything you have said, and I know this is the only thing I can do if I want to feel like I’m living up to and fulfilling my dreams. Having said that, I was wondering if there is any particular advice you could have, or anyone that reads this, for someone like myself who has no prior education or work experience to get into this field. This is not something I woke up this morning and decided I wanted to do, I have known this is what I have wanted to do since I was very young. I am 22 years old and I guess I’m just asking for a little help to get started.

    • March 8, 2012 9:49 am

      Hi there Paul,
      Thanks for the feedback – I’m glad you like the site – please consider either buying the ebook, or leaving a rating or comment on the Amazon page for it – it really helps me out!

      In terms of your question, I guess the site is my distilled advice on this issue. You mention that you have no work experience – that’s not really unusual at 22! You mention a particular interest in Africa – I would begin by looking for opportunities to travel and get to know the region a little – if you’re in college then look at whether there are internship opportunities, or opportunities to volunteer. Getting work experience is the big problem, and it’s not easy. I’ve tried to provide some ideas on the site for how to do this, and I hope you find that useful – let me know how you do, and please feel free to post again if you have a more specific question,

  2. Carlos permalink
    April 7, 2012 5:14 pm

    Hey Paul…I have posted a link at the end that has job openings in several areas. Before you deploy you can develop skills that make you more in demand. Get your EMT certification or nurses degree. There are several organizations that are always looking for temps to fill slots in emergencies. This will get your foot in the door, give you experience and get you some much needed connections in the field. Learn French or Spanish. French if you want to go to Africa and Spanish for South America. Both is best. Also Arabic if you can swing it. Hope that gives you a start. Here is the link to some jobs.

    Good luck,


  3. Cicely permalink
    November 23, 2012 9:17 am

    Hi Nick – Thanks for developing this website and I agree with the sound advice! I do work overseas for a big international INGO and always struggle to describe the best approach when people ask me about how to get into this line of work. In case you have not seen it before, please see this website for a documentary by a kidnapped aid worker in Sudan and security management – . Thanks, Cicely

    • November 23, 2012 12:58 pm

      Thanks for the positive feedback Cicely – unfortunately I couldn’t get that link to work, although you can find the article by searching on the rte site.

  4. Jordan permalink
    February 2, 2013 12:07 am

    I love reading your blog but i have a few questions. I am in college and want to do humanitarian work but I am very confused on where to start. I plan on going on to volunteer with the peace corps or Americorps VISTA. However my problem is finding a major to focus on. I initially was going to do public service public policy with concentrations in non-profit management and public administration. However I began to think that maybe I am coming into it the wrong way. I want to do hands on work implementing social welfare programs in developing countries. My college offers a BA in global health. I am very confused, I just know I want a job helping people mainly children.

    • February 2, 2013 5:07 pm

      Hi Jordan,
      Thanks for your kind words, please do consider buying the ebook, and rating it on Amazon if you find this site helpful, and please do consider buying things on Amazon using the links on this site – those things really do help offset the cost of hosting the site.

      OK. So – I do keep on saying that I will write a post on this topic, and keep not doing it, so here goes. Assuming you want to work overseas, there are certain key professional areas where what you study matters. Health, engineering, and finance in the main. Anything else, I would say it really doesn’t matter what you study for your undergraduate degree. Study what you’re interested in, and use the time to get as much experience overseas as you possibly can. Peace Corps is a great way to get some overseas experience, and get some ideas about what you want to do. The only way you’re going to become less confused is by getting out there and experiencing the kinds of places you think you might like to work and visiting the kinds of organizations you think you might like to work for.

      Get as many internships and volunteer opportunities as you can, seek informational interviews with as many people doing the kinds of things you want to do as you can, read vociferously, and network like mad. I have a Masters Degree in some kind of development work or another, and honestly, I don’t think any of my employers haver ever asked me about it. Not once.

      Good luck!

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