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Published: August 18, 2014

World Humanitarian Day and ‘Aid in Danger’: a hard-look at violence against aid workers

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Raquel Vazquez Llorente is a Researcher at the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF). Raquel is responsible for producing original research papers that help share and promote best-practices amongst the humanitarian sector, with the aim of building the capacity of security and risk managers. Raquel also collaborates with other bodies undertaking research projects in the sector.


Last week on the 13th of August, the UN declared the situation in Iraq a level 3 emergency, the highest level of emergency. Including Iraq, the humanitarian community is responding to a total of four UN level 3 crises (Syria, Central African Republic and South Sudan), which are all man-made disasters. People are less likely to give money to political crises, yet donors are increasingly seeking engagement in fragile contexts—which are also, not surprisingly, the contexts that carry the highest risk for humanitarian workers. (See GISF Report ‘The future of humanitarian security in fragile contexts’).

Tomorrow, August 19th, is World Humanitarian Day, and this year is dedicated to all humanitarian workers killed, injured or kidnapped while doing their jobs. The UK mission to the UN is pushing for a debate in the Security Council, but the focus of attention is on the social media campaign, #the world needs more #humanitarian heroes. The campaign aims to raise awareness of the rise of attacks against humanitarian workers. The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) has produced a poster campaign in the airports and metro stations of nine major European cities, and organised a Twitter chat on August 19th from 15h to 16h, to be followed by a Google Hangout at 16h30. They also have their hashtag campaign, #Ihonour.

Who are these ‘humanitarian heroes’ and why are they attacked? Larissa Fast, Assistant Professor at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, has just published ‘Aid in Danger: The Perils and Promise of Humanitarianism’—a book that deconstructs violence against aid workers, which is based on more than 10 years of research. Probably one of the most complete (if not, the most complete) analysis of humanitarian discourses and the normalisation of danger, the reasons behind attacks, and the paradigms of security management for humanitarians. The launch of the book is taking place on August 19th at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), in an event co-hosted by GISF. The chair of the discussion, Mike Wooldridge, BBC World Affairs Correspondent, reflects here on the event that will follow the book launch: the inaugural National Memorial for Humanitarian Aid Workers, at Westminster Abbey.

In her book, Larissa Fast also explores the ‘competing images of aid’ and the different characterisations of aid workers. One of these contrasting images of humanitarians is the portrayal of aid workers as a ‘superhuman, mythical, saintly figure who travels to hot, dirty, and desperately poor places to work with the downtrodden and underprivileged’. Do these stereotypes, perpetuated in many cases by the aid sector itself, as we are seeing with the #humanitarianheroes campaign, promote explanations about the causes of security incidents that mask our internal vulnerabilities as a sector? ‘Aid in Danger’ tries to seek answers to this and other questions, and thoroughly examines how conceptualisations of aid shape responses to violence against humanitarian workers.

The aid sector will be ‘celebrating’ the World Humanitarian Day with four level 3 emergencies. On a day that commemorates the bombing of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad—the UN headquarters in Iraq where at least 22 people where killed only five days after the mission was established—should we be asking ourselves, do we need more humanitarian heroes, or do we need better responses (and better security-managed assistance) to humanitarian crises?


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