The Lives of Humanitarian Workers

Security procedures and concerns have grown enormously as a critical area in which to strike such a balance. How to value the lives of humanitarian workers is another persistent moral problem in humanitarian action. The conviction that every human life is precious is the most fundamental value in humanitarian ethics. So how far are humanitarian workers prepared to share the physical and emotional risks of those who suffer war and disaster if it might mean losing their own life? What is the place of a humanitarian worker’s death in humanitarian ethics in a context that is marked by so many other deaths?

Between 2004 and 2013, some 867 humanitarian workers were violently killed and 696 were kidnapped. The year 2013 was the most dangerous on record for humanitarian workers, with 155 killed, 174 seriously wounded and 134 kidnapped.73 The vast majority of all these victims were national staff, most of them working for international NGOs.74 During this time, staff security has become a strategic concern for all humanitarian agencies. After the terrible losses in al-Qaeda’s bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003, UN agencies have gained a reputation for being the most risk-averse of all humanitarian agencies. However, it is not only the UN that is increasingly retreating from the frontline. International NGOs have also been criticized for similar policies and operational postures of “bunkerization”, “quarantine” and “remote management”.75 MSF recently castigated the sector as a whole for its caution:

UN agencies and international NGOs are increasingly absent from field locations especially when there is any kind of significant security or logistical issues.... International staff are often rapidly evacuated or go into hibernation. Many agencies only concentrate on the easiest-to-reach populations and are avoiding the most difficult places. They are operating at arm’s length through local organizations or government.76

Antonio Donini and Dan Maxwell have similarly noted the increasing change in humanitarian relationships and practice “from face-to-face to face-to-screen”.77 Implicit in this trend and some of its moves is a suggestion that an agency’s international lives are to be more protected than its national lives. Remote management, in particular, has been singled out for transferring risk away from international staff onto the lives of national staff. A discussion of the value of aid worker life has, therefore, to deal with two difficult questions: the ethics of personal risk, and the relative value of human lives.

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