Aid in Danger: The Perils and Promise of Humanitarianism

Aid in Danger: The Perils and Promise of Humanitarianism

Aid in Danger: The Perils and Promise of Humanitarianism

Aid in Danger: The Perils and Promise of Humanitarianism

Synopsis

Humanitarian aid workers increasingly remain present in contexts of violence and are injured, kidnapped, and killed as a result. Since 9/11 and in response to these dangers, aid organizations have fortified themselves to shield their staff and programs from outside threats. In Aid in Danger, Larissa Fast critically examines the causes of violence against aid workers and the consequences of the approaches aid agencies use to protect themselves from attack.

Based on more than a decade of research, Aid in Danger explores the assumptions underpinning existing explanations of and responses to violence against aid workers. According to Fast, most explanations of attacks locate the causes externally and maintain an image of aid workers as an exceptional category of civilians. The resulting approaches to security rely on separation and fortification and alienate aid workers from those in need, representing both a symptom and a cause of crisis in the humanitarian system. Missing from most analyses are the internal vulnerabilities, exemplified in the everyday decisions and ordinary human frailties and organizational mistakes that sometimes contribute to the conditions leading to violence. This oversight contributes to the normalization of danger in aid work and undermines the humanitarian ethos. As an alternative, Fast proposes a relational framework that captures both external threats and internal vulnerabilities. By uncovering overlooked causes of violence, Aid in Danger offers a unique perspective on the challenges of providing aid in perilous settings and on the prospects of reforming the system in service of core humanitarian values.

Excerpt

Humanitarianism is in crisis. More than a decade after 9/11 and the advent of the “war on terror,” the dangers to aid workers have increased, as has the complexity of their operating environment. The humanitarian impulse to provide lifesaving assistance is under fire, literally and figuratively: literally, as aid workers from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe are attacked, injured, kidnapped, and killed, and aid agencies are prevented from accessing vulnerable populations; and figuratively, as the essence of humanitarian action—to provide life-sustaining assistance to those suffering as a result of war or natural disaster—is compromised by those who link such assistance to foreign policy or security goals. While many have analyzed the figurative challenges of conflating humanitarian action with other agendas, few have devoted attention to the literal challenge of violence against aid workers and its implications for providing aid. This issue and its attendant consequences provide a neglected yet essential lens through which to examine the state of the humanitarian system. Doing so exposes the practical and analytical challenges of providing assistance, crystallizes its ethos, and offers a pathway for reforming the system.

In 2011, 86 aid workers died, 127 were severely injured, and 95 were kidnapped in 151 incidents worldwide, representing the highest number recorded since researchers began systematically tracking such incidents in the mid1990s (Stoddard, Harmer, and Hughes 2012). Humanitarian aid operations have evolved in complexity throughout their history, but following the “war on terror” after 2001 they changed more visibly, with an increasing sophistication and fortification in the provision of security for aid workers. These changes are both symptom and cause of the crisis in the humanitarian system. By delving into these changes, I seek not to explain why incidents . . .

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