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Targeting aid workers

When Australian aid worker David Savage was recently severely injured by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, his family, understandably, was dumbfounded by anyone wanting to kill a civilian who had come to help the Afghan people. He worked, after all, as an advisor to AusAID, not the armed forces.

Unfortunately, over the last decade and a half aid workers have become 'legitimate targets', not just collateral damage. In this case, the Taliban said they had wanted to kill him in revenge for the shooting of 17 unarmed Afghan civilians by a deranged American soldier. It took me back.

I was caught up in a similar situation in the Islamic City of Marawi on the Filipino island of Mindanao in 1986. The Americans had just bombed Libya in retaliation for terrorist attacks on Americans.

At the time, I was investigating projects for the aid agency I worked for among the poor Muslim population. The locals drew their drinking water from the same lake where cows lazily defecated because the local warlords were charging too much to use the municipal taps that dotted the town.

The police told my hosts that the life of the American had been threatened. My explanation that I was Scottish drew blank stares and they offered me a gun. I said my style was more gin and tonic.

In the end, I was driven by two burly members of the Moro Liberation Front (who otherwise might have kidnapped me on the way down the mountain) to a safe house, run by my hosts, a Muslim aid organisation. I was lucky — David Savage was not.

In more innocent times, aid workers were regarded as angels by all sides because they took their cue from the Geneva Conventions and were present as humanitarians, not political stooges. There was a sharp distinction between them and any troops who had, in addition to any combative role, a mission of winning hearts and minds while retaining the capacity to kill people.

Western governments and armies then tried to co-opt NGOs, offering to lay out tents for them, for example, thus giving mixed messages to the population in need.

In Central America at the height of the proxy wars, NGOs were a major source of information for the CIA and unwittingly aided in its killing spree of left-wing rebels. Now western aid workers are regarded as part of the westernising mission in many parts but especially Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia where most violence against aid workers occurs.

The 2011 Aid Worker Security Report actually mentions a slight downturn in violence against aid workers in the last two years of reporting though this is caused by less activity of those agencies in the most violent settings as humanitarian space shrinks and the difference between an aid effort and a war effort becomes blurred.

Nowadays, aid workers are targeted by politicised rebels as well as bandits and, as one who works in rural Afghanistan recently told me with a smile, 'we never know when we go out the door whether we'll return'.

The Health Minister of Sri Lanka's recent comments accusing Caritas Sri Lanka of a 'major conspiracy' to sow anarchy by reporting the government's abuses to the Human Rights Council reminds us that most aid is carried out not by westerners but by locals who in most cases die in larger numbers as they have less protection.

I happen to know Caritas Sri Lanka extremely well and they are too savvy to go to the Human Rights Council knowing their government would destroy all their other programs. Its excellent peace-building program and attempts to reconcile ordinary Tamils and Sinhalese do not have the government seal of approval and that is probably the reason for the minister's outburst.

His words put the Caritas workers in jeopardy, something Western politicians might remember when they try to control or twist humanitarian work too much, regarding it as an arm of foreign or defence policy rather than as a free gift to others as part of our common humanity. 

Duncan MacLarenDuncan MacLaren, the former Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, lectures in international development studies at the Australian Catholic University in Sydney. 

Topic tags: Duncan MacLaren, Afghanistan, Aid, Caritas



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