The best way to ensure NGO staff safety?

During their first six months in Afghanistan expatriate staff members of the NGO International Assistance Mission (IAM) focus solely on learning about the local culture.

They attend language classes, interact with Afghan colleagues, taste local foods and learn other aspects of local life.

“This gives us a unique way of looking at security, just like local Afghans,” said Dirk R. Rans, IAM’s executive director.

Over three decades of armed violence has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and millions have emigrated. Scores of aid workers have been attacked, abducted or intimidated and access to large swathes of the country has been greatly reduced in recent years.

Registered in Afghanistan as long ago as 1966, according to the Ministry of Economy which registers NGOs, none of IAM’s national staff has been killed due to affiliation with the NGO. Only four IAM foreign members of staff died in the country between 1980 and 1990 - one in a car crash.

Registered in Switzerland as a charity with headquarters in Kabul, IAM mostly provides healthcare services in Kabul, Herat and other provinces.

The NGO’s foreign staff work as volunteers and tend to serve longer than staff of other NGOs. One staff member from Germany worked for 39 years, retiring at the age of 79.

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Curbing attacks on schools 

Education has suffered in the past four years with dozens of students and teachers killed and schools destroyed across the country, but in Mandozai District in the volatile southeastern province of Khost, local people have reached an agreement with insurgents that they will not attack students and teachers at schools built by the NGO Partnership for Education of Children in Afghanistan (PECA).

“Our schools have not been attacked, because they’re backed by the local people,” the NGO’s Santwana Dasgupta told IRIN.

Local people have been closely involved in the schools - from construction to management - and all construction materials were sourced locally.

In addition to science, literature and languages some of the schools offer tailoring, bee-keeping and birth attendance classes for female students.

“Schools can also be economic engines and not just for education,” said Dasgupta, adding that the NGO was also helping graduates to set up their own businesses.

Staff safety

“Neutrality and local acceptance, not the military or the counter-insurgency, have become the dominant factors of security for NGOs in vast areas of the country,” the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) said in a report in January.

In order to mitigate risks and be able to access insecure areas, aid agencies should adhere to humanitarian principles and seek local acceptance, ANSO says.

Failure to do so could not only result in the loss of access but could entail risks, experts warn.

“Humanitarians have lost a lot of ground because of political agendas that disregard the humanitarian imperative; humanitarians are under increasing threats given perceived political alignments,” Antonio Donini, a humanitarian expert at the Feinstein International Center, wrote in a research paper in May.

The security measures adopted by the relatively small IAM and PECA may be unthinkable for some larger international agencies operating more widely across the country and used to relying on armoured cars, armed guards and heavily fortified compounds.