Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Violent Attacks Target Aid Workers, Recipients

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Saturday,  May 17 / 09

Zack Gross

Conflict in many poorer regions of the world has made the process of delivering and receiving development assistance, or aid, a dangerous business.

Last year was the deadliest year ever, with 260 humanitarian aid workers killed, seriously injured or kidnapped in a variety of attacks, with 122 of these being fatalities.

Many more “beneficiaries” of western aid programs also lost their lives, with the most lethal countries overall being Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Chad, Iraq and Pakistan.

A recent report, “Providing Aid in Insecure Environments: 2009 Update,” written by the Centre on International Cooperation (CIC) in New York and the Overseas Development Institute in London, stated that “the numbers (of aid workers killed) are quite startling and certainly exceed that of United Nations peacekeepers.”

While kidnappings can sometimes be attributed to criminal gangs looking for cash rather than gains in war or politics, in general, the growing juxtaposition of our aid programs with our cultural and military agenda — or, at least, the perception of this — puts aid workers and recipients at risk. Canada, the United States and Great Britain have been active in conflict situations in western and southern Asia since early this century. Presidents and prime ministers have tried to connect “defence, diplomacy and development” as a strategic agenda for their
engagement with the Taliban, al-Qaida and other groups. Their hope is to encourage support from overseas populations as well as their own citizens by
contextualizing military action as a part of modern, democratic nation-building. However, when aid workers and recipients are seen as agents of this agenda, they are immediately at risk as representatives of the foreign military.

Critics of the coupling of military intervention with development programs, such as building schools and clinics, protest that an edifice constructed with western
military protection will be an immediate target for attack or destruction as soon as that military is gone.

Even programs that provide needed educational, health or gender support will be targeted because they will be seen as something delivered by an invading army. As well, many aid groups see ethical problems when helping people is tied in with a militarized situation.

Along with our western military force, which is powerful enough to subdue the opposition in another country, there is also our overwhelming modern, western culture. It is indeed strong enough to overthrow the traditional culture of another country. Many people around the world fear this undermining influence on their cultures (Canada has become somewhat Americanized without a shot being fired) and see aid programs, like the military, as another way that they will lose their identity to a secular, permissive way of life. This, then, also puts those who deliver or partake of development assistance at risk.

Compounding these issues, aid workers tend to be risktakers, dedicated to staying with their task, even as danger mounts. Their organizations, meanwhile,
may not have the means to protect them and the CIC is predicting numbers of
workers killed, injured and kidnapped will continue to climb steeply.

Recent high-profile incidents include the kidnapping of respected and experienced Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, a United Nations special envoy to Africa, and his aide by rebels in Niger, in December.
They were released in late April after four months of captivity.

But not all victims are high-profile. Many nationals of the countries in question, working in the field with less protection than expatriates would have, are at much higher risk of uncounted, anonymous demise.

Of course, it is not only aid workers who are more at risk in modern times.

Journalists, politicians, human rights workers and many others are losing their
lives in a conflict-ridden world where respect for human life seems to be waning while the technology and mindset to take it away “improves” and grows.

Enforced agreements on weaponry, conciliation, rights and much more are needed to make our global environment more secure, and the issues surrounding poverty need to be tackled so that people can live in peace, free from want.


Zack Gross coordinates a provincial fair trade outreach program for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of 38 international development organizations.
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