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28.07.2015 | Blog

Development Aid Worker: A Job with High Security Risk

The security risks for aid workers living and working abroad have risen hugely in the last few years. Security expert Josef Frei explains.

Civil war in Mali, cash payouts are protected by the army.
Civil war in Mali, cash payouts are protected by the army. It is dangerous to work here for development aid workers, too. © Jens Grossmann
Kerstin Bandsom Team Communications

The security risks for aid workers living and working abroad have risen hugely in the last few years. In an interview, the Welthungerhilfe security expert Josef Frei explains which strategies Welthungerhilfe is using so that, wherever possible, staff do not run into danger.

According to the "Aid Worker Security Report 2015", there were 190 attacks on humanitarian organisations in 2014 – four times as many than a decade ago. How can Welthungerhilfe protect their staff?

The civil war in Syria has increased our awareness of the fact that development aid workers can also be a conscious target of attacks. We take the security of our staff very seriously and consider them at every stage - such as when selecting a project or planning the budget. Questions of security often require rapid reactions; therefore, as Security Advisor, I am in direct exchange with the Executive Board and advise on the security situation with the project countries.

Security training for overseas staff

Welthungerhilfe works in seven countries which are currently rated by the bi-annual threat analysis as "very dangerous". What warrants this risk?

It is the people in risk countries that are currently in the greatest need of aid. As an aid organisation, we cannot allow ourselves to cherry-pick. Naturally, we do not force anyone into going to dangerous countries and select only suitable candidates. All posted colleagues complete security training and first aid courses. Local security plans help to minimise the dangers as much as possible. In addition, the local staff know the country-specific context precisely and can very successfully assess the security situation. The whole Welthungerhilfe team in the country benefits from their experiences and their knowledge.

Who is suitable for a crisis country?

Besides the relevant specialist and country knowledge, our colleagues on the ground must be very psychologically resilient – even just to cope with the living conditions in, for example, Central Africa or South Sudan. Someone who wears revealing clothes, drinks alcohol, goes out at night or makes political or religious statements can, for example, make themselves unpopular in Islamic project countries. In Germany, we do not always find suitable candidates who would engage themselves on such an "adventure". As a result, we often employ experts from third countries.

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Protection from danger: Working with the population

In South Sudan, Welthungerhilfe works in the "bunker" at times. What does that mean?

Fighting takes place again and again in our project region of Bentiu in South Sudan. This happens at least every other month, we already have a routine: Mostly, I skype with the country director and, in consultation with the programme director, we decide whether the staff team should withdraw to a safer location. Then we work in a bullet-proof protection space until the official all-clear is given. If a larger attack is announced, we would also evacuate and temporarily stop the project if necessary. Our employees in South Sudan are experienced enough to be able to correctly assess the respective situations together with us.

Acceptance as protective shield

How do you prevent Welthungerhilfe coming into the sights of radical groups, because it brings in supposedly hostile ideas?

We have a simple recipe for this: acceptance. Welthungerhilfe always works with the population, not against it. Only in this way can we move relatively safely in high risk countries. The best project idea is worth nothing if the local society is against it. We once had to abandon a hygiene project for women in rural Afghanistan because of this. As hard as it is for us, in such situations we have to give way. Projects cannot be forced through – we wouldn’t achieve anything and would also find security problems in our way.

Psychological support for employees across the world

Does Welthungerhilfe also negotiate with rebels in order to secure the project work?

In principle, we negotiate with all conflict parties. It is important to also integrate these forces and to explain to them what we are doing in the country. In many crisis countries all foreigners are seen as spies. Of course, we want to disprove this rumour and show that we present no threat. But for this to happen, there has to be a lot of trust from both sides.

How can employees deal with the shock after an attack?

If a local or international colleague has experienced an attack or a particularly hard situation – such as the Ebola crisis in West Africa – we provide contact to our Cologne-based psychologist. Men in particular shy away from this because they believe that ,as a "guy", they must be able to cope with everything alone. I undertook such a supervision after a two-year posting in Syria and can highly recommend it.

The interview was conducted by Christina Felschen, freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area, USA.

Read the full interview in our newspaper Welternährung (in German).

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