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Staying safe part 2 – kidnappings and the duty of care

The high media profile of a couple of recent kidnappings of aid-workers (see the bottom of this page for recommendations on books by and about kidnap survivors) made me want to update the small section on Staying Safe that dealt with this difficult topic. First off, lets try to put some numbers to this regrettable situation. It is certainly true that the number of incidents of kidnappings has increased in recent years from 7 in 2003 to 91* in 2012 (according to Humanitarian Outcomes). They report that in 2011 the number of kidnapping incidents outnumbered other forms of violent threats against aid workers.

Let’s set aside the issue of whether 91 a year is ‘a lot’ when compared to other relatively high risk professions. While my calculations still put aid work somewhere on a par with being a commercial truck-driver in the US in terms of on-the-job fatalities, 91 is clearly 91 too many. It is worth noting from a risk perspective however, that the vast majority of kidnappings, like the vast majority of violent incidents in general, happen in a relatively small number of countries. This clearly doesn’t help those posted to the more risky places, but might reassure those who are not.

Another thing that’s worth pointing out is that the vast majority of aid-worker kidnaps are of national staff members. It is truly unfortunate that they don’t garner the media attention that westerners do.


Kidnappings usually involve ransom. Most major agencies have had staff kidnapped at some point, and all of them claim that they don’t pay ransoms. There are good strategic reasons for this of course – if an agency gets a reputation for paying ransoms it could rapidly turn into the target of choice for kidnappers. That said, just because an agency doesn’t pay ‘ransoms’ doesn’t mean that the kidnappers might not end up with money from someone. Oxfam’s Heather Hughes says “There are many ways in which money can change hands… It’s not always the agency which pays. Sometimes the victim’s government pays, and governments differ in their attitudes.” Many agencies have contracts with third parties to manage hostage situations, and may have insurance policies to ensure that these negotiations and potential payments happen at arm’s-length, with the agency continuing to be able to claim that they ‘never pay ransoms’.

Case Study – kidnapping in Darfur and questions of duty of care**

I want to be respectful of the privacy*** of the people involved in this sad and unfortunate incident, and my heart goes out to the individuals, but I feel that it is instructive to examine the 2010 kidnapping of Flavia Wagner in Darfur. Flavia worked for Samaritan’s Purse in Sudan, and had been briefly abducted in the fall of 2009. She and two Sudanese staff members were subsequently kidnapped again on May 18th 2010. The two Sudanese people were released promptly (her driver was later accused of complicity in the kidnapping), while she was held for 105 days. The sparse details released suggests that she was subjected to an unimaginable physical and mental ordeal.

Upon her release and return to the US Wagner sued the aid organization and Clayton Consultants (the crisis-management firm contracted by Samaritan’s Purse). She accused the agency of failing to train its security personnel adequately and of willfully ignored warning signs that abductions were a threat to foreigners, sending their staff to Abu Ajura area in May 2010 despite the fact other non-government organizations “had prohibited their employees from traveling in that area” because of the threat of kidnapping. Her filing goes on to criticize their handling of the kidnapping, including claiming that their failure to pay a prompt ransom increased her time in captivity and her resulting injuries.

This is the first case I am aware of of an aid worker suing an aid organization in quite this way. It was dismissed in 2012 after an undisclosed settlement was reached between the parties,  so no precedent was set around duty of care issues in these circumstances, but the case raises important tensions in the aid-worker / agency relationship. As part of their defense, Samaritan’s Purse offered their new hire paperwork, which Favia had signed, indicating that she understood and accepted, amongst other things “the risk of injury or damage and understand that my assignment may involve difficulties, hazards, and dangers… that Samaritan’s Purse does not assume responsibility for… personal harm, injury or illness that may come to me … do hereby release and forever discharge Samaritan’s Purse, its directors, officers, and employees from liability for any claim or demand which I, or my heirs, executors, administrators, or assigns might otherwise assert upon the basis of any of the foregoing. I agree to hold Samaritan’s Purse harmless from any claim that might arise out of any acts performed by me while serving.” Well, that’s pretty comprehensive, and the kind of disclaimer that isn’t uncommon in the aid world. That said, regardless of what an employee might sign, the organization does have a duty of care, both morally and legally, and this case hinged on the somewhat fuzzy nature of that duty in international aid work.

The tensions that it raises – the duty to protect an individual vs a broader responsibility not to encourage kidnapping and fund unsavory activities by paying ransoms – the imperative to act to assist those in peril in dangerous areas vs the duty of care to individual aid workers – the degree to which an organization should be help accountable for failing to follow best practices in security management and many more – have not been resolved by this case. This is an area of emerging practice and law, and its a discussion that will, unfortunately, continue to evolve for the foreseeable future.

It is also a sad reminder to us all that this is not a risk free business, and that some parts of the world are especially risky. The issues of responsibility of aid agencies to protect their staff in these kinds of extreme environments where risk is inherent are complex, but to me the take-home message here is that any of us who go into this line of work should seriously consider the worst case scenarios, and be prepared to take responsibility for them ourselves, if necessary refusing assignments that we do not feel comfortable with.

* In a somewhat morbid statistical note, incidents are coded ‘kidnaps’ if the victim survives. Kidnappings where the victim is killed are reclassified as ‘killings’.
** In tort law, a duty of care is a legal obligation which is imposed on an individual or organization requiring that they adhere to a standard of reasonable care while performing any acts that could foreseeably harm others. In this context it is the obligation on an aid agency to exercise reasonable care over their staff. Of course, the question is ‘what is reasonable’ in a context like Darfur?
*** This case study draws only on publicly available information.
These are my recommendations on memoirs focussed on aid-worker kidnappings:

An Evil Cradling: The Five-Year Ordeal of a Hostage
A House in the Sky: A Memoir
Impossible Odds: The Kidnapping of Jessica Buchanan and Her Dramatic Rescue by SEAL Team Six

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