Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

The Risk of Humanitarianism: Towards an Inclusive Model

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

The Risk of Humanitarianism: Towards an Inclusive Model

Article excerpt


International agencies are facing heightened levels of security risk in conflict zones. The nature of contemporary conflicts and the post-9/11 global political-security environment have contributed to a situation whereby the threat of attack as well as recurring criminal violence are a constant reality for their employees, hindering their work and obstructing their access to people in need. Moreover, limitations exist in the ability of international agencies to conduct effective strategic risk assessments. The crux of this article therefore is the development of an industry-specific political-security risk model for international agencies in conflict zones in which these limitations are addressed. The primary concern is thus, selecting the appropriate factors and indicators and placing them in a model that will enable international agencies to mitigate the risks encountered in conflict zones.


A common trait of contemporary conflict zones (i)) is the existence of a large contingent of international agencies (ii)). Both the nature of contemporary conflicts and the post-9/11 global political-security landscape have meant that over the last two decades international agencies have been called to operate in increasingly hostile environments such as Afghanistan, Sudan and Chad. International agencies are thereby facing serious security risks (Bollettino 2008: 263 and Bruderlein 2004: 1). According to Stoddard et al's (2009: 33) seminal study--which tracks global incident data from humanitarian aid contexts and identifies new trends in violence against aid workers--2008 saw violent attacks against humanitarian aid workers reach the highest toll in the 12 years that the study has tracked these incidents. Indeed, the nature and scope of the political-security risks facing international agencies in current times have, in the words of Fast (2010:2), "brought humanitarian security to the front pages". Incidents that have contributed to the headlining of this industry include the 2010 murder of 10 medical aid workers in Afghanistan, the 2003 suicide bombing of the United Nations (UN) headquarters in Baghdad and the murder of 17 aid workers in Sri Lanka in 2006 (Fast 2010: 2).

The increase in violence against aid workers has witnessed a corresponding investment by agencies into bolstering their security capabilities. However, Van Brabant (2001b: 31), Gassmann (2005: 3) and Bruderlein (2004: 1) respectively conclude that the risk assessment capabilities of international agencies are still limited, that most agencies admit a lack of knowledge of the contexts within which they operate, and that they have tended to increase their security capacity at a practical level without attention to the relevance of their security strategies. Limitations in the security architecture of international agencies are potentially devastating in terms of loss of life, injury, and the loss and destruction of assets and property.

Van Brabant (2001a: 1-2) reaches the crux of the matter in the following statement: "There is indeed an incompressible element of risk in humanitarian work, but good security management is also a tool to help agencies enter, and remain in danger zones, while the loss of assets and especially staff, through accident or incident, impairs the ability of the agency to provide assistance". It is here that the value of political risk analysis--and by definition, the sub-field of political-security risk analysis--as a tool that "aids in describing political phenomena in terms of factors of risk" and "tries to explain or understand the occurrence of political risk" can be realised for international agencies (Brink 2004: 25).

This article is concerned with the limitations evident in the current security risk models (iii)) used by international agencies to assess the security environments associated with conflict zones. Consequently the core of this article is the application of the theoretical and methodological precepts of industry-specific (iv)) political risk analysis to the relatively under-researched field of political-security risk analysis. …

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