THE CHALLENGES OF WORKING IN CONFLICT ZONES?
By Vincent Lyn
The United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that one-quarter of humanity — two billion people — are living in conflict areas today and the world is facing the highest number of violent conflicts since 1945 when World War II ended.
Conflicts from Yemen, Syria, Myanmar and Sudan to Haiti, Africa’s Sahel, and now the war in Ukraine — a catastrophe shaking the foundations of the international order, spilling across borders and causing skyrocketing food, fuel and fertilizer prices that spell disaster for developing countries.
Recent figures show that over 100 million people were forced to leave their homes because of conflict, violence and human rights violations. And that doesn’t include the Ukraine war which has already seen 7.4 million people flee the country and displaced another 8 million within the country including 2 million children.
Guterres said the U.N. estimates that this year “at least 274 million will need humanitarian assistance.” This represents a 17 percent increase from 2021 and will cost $41 billion for the 183 million people targeted for aid, according to the U.N. humanitarian office. He also cited the two billion figure of people living in conflict countries in a report to the commission in late January 2022 which said there were a record number of 56 state-based conflicts.
He also added, “conflicts are increasing at a moment of multiplying risks that are pushing peace further out of reach — inequalities, Covid-19, climate change and cyber threats, to name just a few.”
A world affected by brutal civil conflicts, endless proxy wars, violent extremism and warlordism, the need to assist vulnerable people will continue to expand. In parallel, the security conditions in which humanitarian aid workers are deployed and operate in various conflict zones will become an increasingly relevant issue. Although debates among scholars and practitioners are growing, the severity and urgency of the issue continues to be underestimated.
Ukraine and other conflict zones around the world, the military is often first on the ground, followed by diplomats, contractors and journalists. Next, in many cases, are humanitarian aid workers: People like myself who either have their own foundation We Can Save Children or who work for private organizations and strive to remain impartial in some of the world’s most dangerous places.
War Zones almost unfailingly create a certain kind of temporary population, a kind of cast of participants interacting with each other.
There are, of course, the combatants on either side. There are the civilians caught in the crossfire. There are journalists who rush in to report on the conditions in the conflict. There are diplomats who shuttle in and out in an effort to end the conflict. And one other role you nearly always see filled is that of the humanitarian aid worker, and in some ways, this is the most complex role of all because we are there to do a lot, often with very little, entering as noncombatants, unarmed, only there to help sometimes even when one or both sides don’t want to help to get in.
We show up with field hospitals and systems for providing clean water and with emergency food supplies and with skills to get schools started again and even to help get constitutions written. Some work for governments, some work for well-known humanitarian organizations, and some work for private nonprofit, for-profit groups.
We have to be, if we want to succeed, exceedingly sophisticated at understanding human nature and at reading dangerous situations because we can and sometimes do pay with our lives. In fact, our job has become more and more dangerous. With attacks on humanitarian aid workers having risen since 9/11, one report says the Aid Worker Security Database records over 6,000 casualties since 2001. This is no doubt an underestimate as many assaults are not notified. Sometimes we are mistaken for the military, and others fall victim to violence from groups who just don’t want us there, like al-Shabaab in Somalia or ISIS in Iraq and Syria and Boko Haram in Nigeria.
From my personal experience we are many times portrayed from two opposing angles. One described as heroic and as dauntless saviors of people in danger. The other tends toward conspiracy theories that consider us with suspicion, presenting us as infiltrators of foreign States or international powers… if not as sometimes accomplices to jihadist movements.
These views, which exist both locally and globally, may stem from naiveness or outright maliciousness. But they are in fact very familiar to humanitarian aid workers. In fact, part of my work in armed-conflict zones consists precisely in knowing what is said about us, as this information is decisive concerning whether I am accepted on the ground or not and, ultimately, for the safety of my operations and personnel. Any harmful distortion of my image can have fatal consequences. When there is an overload of conflicting information about the environment in which humanitarian aid workers operate, it hampers my operations. That is why I prefer to work discreetly. Indeed, a certain confidentiality guarantees effectiveness of action.
As a counterpoint to the above-mentioned polarized perceptions, there are many areas of conflict that are disputed militarily and politically by different State and non-State armed groups. It’s important to emphasize the practical and constant trade-offs (nonetheless supervised at the organizational level) that humanitarian aid workers have to make to carry out their actions successfully.
We are endowed with a “noble” mission of helping vulnerable people. It is subject to a framework of transcendent principles that are, in principle, consensual. But, in our working environment, nothing is obvious. The information we are able to glean is fragmented and can be manipulated; the resources we distribute are sources of competition; and the local people are not just victims but also politically active, pursuing their own strategies. Finally, we find ourselves in a highly asymmetrical relationship with armed actors: the former have no weapons, the latter do. And those weapons can be alternately a source of protection or a source of danger.
Furthermore, humanitarian organizations operate relative to one another in a competitive world. Taking over the management of a hospital or refugee camp in a particular place is often far from being the outcome of kindhearted dialog. And when communication on the ground is carried out awkwardly, these choices may be misperceived by communities and/or bearers of arms as “favoritism” and/or as a deliberate choice to exacerbate local tensions.
In this complex and changing environment, humanitarian principles at best act to help guide action, but they cannot dictate the myriad choices to be made on a daily basis. Thus I operate in a volatile gray area and are prone to error.
However, risk is minimized by working methods produced and revised over time, at the organization level and with varying degrees of professionalism. For example, it is common to delegate activities to local staff in order to avoid the dangers that expatriates face, even though this raises serious ethical problems. Thus, while the humanitarian principles act as a highly set standard for humanitarian action, everyday activities ultimately depend on the professional routines that all organizations produce.
Although it is common to hear about bombings, kidnapping and murder, sexual harassment, armed robbery, and individuals caught in crossfire, incidents reported by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) do not always draw the attention of media and public concern. Humanitarian aid workers may be involved in generic attacks aimed at civilians, but most often they are victims of targeted attacks and deliberate violent strategies by local non-state armed groups (NSAGs) or more organized groups like Taliban, Al-Nusra Front , Tahrir al-Sham, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Al Shabaab. Such attacks are often instigated because humanitarian aid workers are perceived as having colluded with the “enemy” and associated with an opposing party. Their presence on-field and their roles in communities can be easily distorted among the local population and manipulated to justify violence against them.
The worsening of security conditions for humanitarian aid workers is a problem that cannot be definitively solved; it is a consequence of the deep changes that global and regional security are encountering. Multi-layered and complex civil conflicts and proxy wars require integrated humanitarian interventions in which the civilian dimension is dominant. The more humanitarian aid workers continue to be deployed on-field and involved in various tasks, the less secure their working conditions will be.
CEO & Founder of We Can Save Children
Deputy Ambassador of International Human Rights Commission (IHRC)
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations (ECOSOC)
Editor-in-Chief at Wall Street News Agency
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts