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Helpers in a hostile world: the risk of aid work grows

Some 242 aid workers were killed in 2010, up from 91 a decade before. Is 'humanitarian space' shrinking, or are aid groups spreading out to more conflict zones than before?

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Nowhere is the hostility toward foreign aid workers more evident than in Pakistan. Following the devastating flooding of the Indus River in 2010, and again in the spring of 2011, aid workers moved in to help the displaced. Some quickly became targets.

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Perhaps the most high-profile of several recent cases is that of Warren Weinstein, a veteran aid worker kidnapped from Lahore, from where he had worked helping small and medium businesses to develop for more than a decade. Al Qaeda in the last week of January released a video saying they would release him if the United States stopped its attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, but did not provide evidence he was in their custody.

"Now the sense is that no area is safe in Pakistan anymore except for Islamabad," says a translator for a multinational nongovernmental organization who has lived in Pakistan for years (he was unable to give his name because he isn't authorized to talk to the media). "Even those areas traditionally considered safe, like Punjab and Sindh, are no longer so."

Blurry motives for attackers

In Somalia, where two MSF workers were killed in Mogadishu last December, and two more kidnapped from a Kenyan-based refugee camp this year, workers can no longer assume that their lifesaving work will be their best protection. Somalia is a clan-based society, where the death of a local fighter in a US drone strike may prompt the dead fighter's clan to kidnap or kill a Western aid worker in revenge.

"The US government recently conducted a successful operation to get two aid workers, and judging from the mood of the Somali community and the way this is discussed on Somali language radio, the majority of Somalis are in favor of that outcome," says Rashid Abdi, a consultant for International Crisis Group in Nairobi, Kenya. "But … it is not going to be an easy terrain for aid workers to work in the future."

• Correspondents Tom A. Peter and Is­sam Ahmed contributed from Kabul, Af­ghan­istan, and Islamabad, Pakistan, respectively.

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