Fewer aid worker attacks. That’s good, right?

Attacks on aid workers declined last year but were still the second highest on record, new data shows.

There were 190 major attacks against aid operations in 2014, down from 264 in 2013, the report from the Humanitarian Outcomes (HO) research group concluded.

In total, 328 aid workers in 27 countries were affected, with kidnap the most common type of attack. Afghanistan, Syria and South Sudan were the most dangerous countries.

The data forms part of a new interactive project launched by IRIN and HO, mapping all attacks across the globe for the first time.

Abby Stoddard, partner at Humanitarian Outcomes, said there was more to the figures than immediately meets the eye.

“The good news that aid worker attacks were down in 2014 should be taken cautiously,” she said.


“We found that much of the reduction can be attributed to aid agencies reducing their field presence in the most insecure areas, as a reaction to the surge in violence in 2013. In the few extremely insecure humanitarian contexts the risk to aid workers is still very high, and as a result it is reducing people's access to international aid.”

Where they’re getting it right and wrong

Larissa Fast, author of the book “Aid in Danger”, said many positive steps had been taken in recent years to improve the security of the roughly 450,000 aid workers across the globe.

“Aid agencies on the whole are becoming much smarter and more sophisticated in terms of how they manage security,” she said. “Part of it is technology and part of it is a renewed emphasis on getting acceptance of what aid agencies are doing.”

She pointed out that a few countries make up the majority of the incidents, with aid workers largely accepted across the globe.

But she also warned that aid agencies were also getting more risk averse, often leaning on local NGO partners to deliver goods.

The Humanitarian Outcomes report highlighted the fact that many aid organisations withdrew from South Sudan for the first quarter of 2014 amid increasing violence. When they returned, they adjusted their operations to rely on mobile deliveries and air lifts, moving many staff from the field to the capital. Likewise, in Syria, which already had the lowest aid worker presence of comparable emergencies, field deployment has fallen further.

Julia Brooks, author of a recent study on aid worker attacks, noted an increasing trend for aid organisations to shift to “remote management,” where the majority of staff are outside the conflict zone and have to rely on local NGOs.

“It is a primary concern that many organisations have responded to risks by passing down the threats to [local NGOs], and that is not necessarily making the risks go away but relying on those who are maybe even less capable to respond to them effectively.”

Ashley Jackson, an expert on humanitarian aid, pointed out that this over-reliance on local NGOs could lead to an under-reporting of security incidents.

“This is part of the problem with trying to catalogue the number of deaths,” she said. “Most of the international aid operations working in Syria sit in Lebanon or Turkey and subcontract [to local NGOs]. They would just never report what happened inside Syria.”

Local groups are often not given enough support to stay safe, she added. “Even in Syria there are major NGOs providing funding for local organisations that will not provide budget for security as they want to keep costs down,” she said. “That is totally unacceptable.”