KABUL — The release last month of three kidnapped United Nations election monitors in Afghanistan does not mean that all is well for the international aid community operating in conflict and recovery situations worldwide. Nothing has really changed on the security front for aid workers.
Particularly in Kabul, many feared that the hostages would suffer the same gruesome fate as those executed by extremists in Iraq. This, in turn, might have prompted more aid agencies to leave Afghanistan just when the recovery is beginning to make headway.
Once again, the incident underlines how both the international aid community and governments are failing to grapple with the real issues at hand in "security" zones ranging from Afghanistan to Chechnya and Burma. Aid agencies need to begin providing appropriate security training for their representatives, but also better awareness of the situations in which they will operate.
And governments must recognize the urgency of establishing broadly recognized - neutral - "humanitarian spheres" without the involvement of the military in areas where where aid agencies can operate without fear of their workers being kidnapped or killed.
Key to protecting aid workers is the clear demarcation of the roles of the military and the aid organizations. Guns and humanitarian assistance simply do not go together. There is a dangerous blurring of the lines placing aid workers, private consultants - as well as journalists - in the same caldron as the security forces. For resistance or insurgent groups, there is increasingly little difference between the military, including government-employed mercenary groups, and the highly vulnerable relief volunteers or reporters operating in the same crisis zones. All are seen as legitimate targets.
The failure, too, of the US to recognize the dangers of disregarding the Geneva Conventions or due process under international law - such as the illegal detention, treatment, torture, and deaths of alleged Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners held at Guantánamo and Bagram - has set a disastrous precedent not only for soldiers captured by insurgents, but for civilians too. Militants have cited such abuse as reason for capturing or killing aid workers. [Editor's note: The original story included a typographical error in which UN appeared erroneously in place of US.]
While the military may obtain good public relations by building bridges or schools, such initiatives double as intelligence-gathering operations. This makes the waters even murkier for those seeking to provide straightforward humanitarian assistance. For the taxpayer, too, military involvement in humanitarian aid makes little financial sense. The cost of deploying so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams is dramatically higher than having qualified aid agencies or contractors perform the same task.
At the same time, aid organizations, notably those run by the UN, urgently need to assume responsibility for improving workers' safety in the field. Frontline aid has become far more hazardous to operate in crisis zones today than during the '80s or '90s.
Whether in Africa, the Middle East, or Asia, aid groups are indeed stepping up security measures to protect workers. Employees are urged not to frequent exposed locations such as restaurants and markets, and to stay in well-protected compounds. Some, too, have had their vehicles repainted to look less obviously foreign.
Such measures remain deceptively cosmetic. They threaten to dangerously isolate aid workers from the very populations they aim to assist. Keeping in touch with one's surroundings is crucial for security. The US aid missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, have almost completely cut themselves off, blockading themselves within compounds. Many leave only with heavily armed escorts.
The disturbing reality is that few humanitarian agencies have bothered to initiate even the most basic security awareness programs for staff prior to missions. Some deliberately subcontract dangerous jobs to consultants to avoid liability. Instead, aid organizations increasingly rely on security companies for employee protection.
Some risk specialists have long maintained that physical protection isn't enough. Aid groups, they argue, should refuse to send anyone into the field until they have received proper security training, including background political and cultural briefings enabling them to better understand their environments.
Too often, aid workers are sent out shockingly ignorant. Most get little more than 30-minute security briefings on arrival. Even though regularly updated by security advisers, few are taught how to cope with the hijackings, armed assaults, and abductions that they face in crisis zones. Sometimes the organizations concerned have covered up the lives lost as a direct result of negligence. Donors, too, have yet to make security awareness a funding prerequisite.
One of the few major agencies to take such matters seriously is the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Swiss humanitarian organization is well known for its mandatory two-week awareness courses. Disguised Swiss soldiers put candidates through highly realistic simulated guerrilla attacks. ICRC officials maintain that such training has probably saved the lives of numerous workers, despite horrendous attacks against its personnel in recent years. Also, as part of their insurance coverage, international journalists are having to undergo similar training prior to leaving for war zones.
The face of international aid is changing rapidly for the worse. Not only are security risks greater, but some governments are deliberately coercing aid groups by requiring them to come under military command in return for funding. If agencies are to perform their humanitarian duties properly, they must remove themselves from the political or military fray. In turn, donors need to accept that agencies aren't there to replace failed policies, but to provide humanitarian or recovery assistance where it's needed most.
• Edward Girardet is a writer on humanitarian, conflict, and recovery issues. He is also editor of the Crosslines Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan.