Staying safe part 1
Is being an aid worker dangerous?
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.