If you only read one thing this week…

Surveying the literature on violence against humanitarian workers by ifyouonlyreadonethingthisweek
August 11, 2009, 3:17 pm
Filed under: Articles, If you have 30 mins

The Humanitarian Policy Group’s Policy Brief 34 ‘Providing aid in insecure environments‘ came out in April 2009, updating their previous 2006 report of the same name with new data and analysis. It seemed like a good opportunity to review the (rather scant) and sometimes confusing literature on this topic. If you only read one of these papers, HPG34 is the one – it’s the most recent, and their dataset covers security incidents from 1997-2008. The data is drawn from reports from participating aid agencies including the UN, Red Cross and most of the major NGOs. Their findings are a little complex though – for all the headlines we see that humanitarian work is getting more dangerous, the data seems mixed. While at first blush their data seems to show attacks on aid worker have gone up sharply since 2006, with a big upswing in kidnappings, a close look shows that more than sixty percent of violent incidents occurred in three places (Darfur, Afghanistan and Somalia) – while that’s clearly bad for workers in those places, the story is different for the rest of us. When they take out these countries, the long-term overall major attack rate for humanitarians is actually declining, averaging 2.4 aid worker victims per 10,000 over the past three years, down from 2.7 for the previous three. Now there is a lot more too it, and of course, the fact that the attack rate has declined slightly does not necessarily tell us anything about whether the environment has become more or less dangerous. I’d encourage you to sit back with a cup of coffee and really dig in for yourself…

Next up, slightly buried in the American Journal of Disaster Medicine is an interesting paper that looks at mortality and morbidity from a number of causes (again using agency reporting, this time from 18 organizations culled from the usual suspects from the period September 2002-December 2005) Violence related mortality and morbidity of humanitarian workers. Their headline statistic of a rate of six intentional violence events per 10,000 person years, is, unfortunately, difficult to compare directly with others. It’s worth a read though, mainly for their more thorough treatment of disease and injury, and a pretty good treatment of the differential exposure of national staff. They also note, as do most other studies of this nature, that the road is still by far the most dangerous place for aid workers, presumably because of a combination of road traffic accidents and security incidents while traveling.

Third on my list is a PhD thesis by Marianne Abbot breathlessly titled ‘Dangerous intervention‘, which is interesting because it takes a different methodological slant, using news media reports corroborated by agency reports between 1991 and 2004. One advantage of this is that it seems that national staff numbers are under-reported in agency reports, but not in press reports. Her analysis is pretty interesting, and there is a lot to digest. A couple of points stand out to me though, that she claims attacks have recently decreased since hitting an all time high in 2003, and that attacks have become more targeted, with relatively fewer incidents of random violent death.

Of course, these studies all share numerous methodological issues, including incomplete record keeping and reporting, problems calculating the total number of humanitarian workers, and no shared format for reporting. Particularly problematic seems to be statistics relating to national staff, which are often kept in decentralized ways. Nonetheless, the research on this important area does seem to be getting better, although it would be great to see more systematic sharing of data.


1.  HPG Policy Brief 34, April 2009, Providing aid in insecure environments: 2009 update Trends in violence against aid workers and the operational response. Abby Stoddard, Adele Harmer and Victoria DiDomenico

2.  HPG Policy Brief 24, September 2006, Providing aid in insecure
environments: trends in policy and operations
. Abby Stoddard, Adele Harmer and Katherine Haver (nb this is provided for completeness – it is superseded by the 2009 update.)

3. Dangerous intervention: An analysis of humanitarian fatalities in assistance contexts. A dissertation by Marianne Abbot at Ohio State University in 2006.

4. Deaths among humanitarian workers. British Medical Journal Volume 321 July 2000. Mani Sheik, Maria Isabel Gutierrez, Paul Bolton, Paul Spiegel, Michel Thieren, Gilbert Burnham at the Center for Refugee and Disaster
Studies, Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

5. No Relief. 2005. Surveying the effects of gun violence on humanitarian and development personnel. Cate Buchanan and Robert Muggah, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, and Small Arms Survey.

6. Violence related mortality and morbidity of humanitarian workers. American journal of disaster medicine. E.A. Rowley.


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[…] I get this question a lot, and unfortunately there is no simple answer. Unfortunately 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. […]

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[…] most recent literature review on incidents of violence against humanitarian workers see this post. Leave a Comment LikeBe the first to like this post.Leave a Comment so far Leave a comment […]

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