A new report by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) says the number of local NGO staff killed in violent incidents fell sharply in 2009 from the previous year, but warns that NGO staff could face increasing risks in 2010.
In 2009, 19 NGO staff, all Afghans, were killed in 172 recorded incidents - down from 31 NGO deaths (six international and 25 local) in 2008, it said.
The drop in NGO casualties is reported as the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said more civilians (2,412) were killed in the conflict, mostly by insurgents, in 2009 than previous years.
“The number of NGO fatalities tends to vary from year to year with no evident pattern,” Sebastien Hogan, director of ANSO, told IRIN, adding that NGO security was not directly linked to the conflict.
Having a “presence” in at least 97 percent of the country the insurgents - whom ANSO calls Armed Opposition Groups (AOG) - were behind 114 NGO security incidents. Criminal groups were involved in 49 incidents and nine NGO workers were murdered this year, according to ANSO.
No international NGO staff were killed in 2009: All 19 victims were Afghans.
“Afghans were more susceptible to security incidents because they work and travel much more within high risk areas and are more exposed to general crime,” said Hogan, adding that international staff tended to travel less by road.
International NGO workers remained a primary abduction target, but this was not specifically linked to their work status.
Local NGO workers were particularly vulnerable and suffered more casualties in “new conflict zones” which were not controlled by either of the warring parties, according to the report.
The ANSO report rejects the notion that NGOs do not operate in areas controlled or strongly influenced by insurgents. It says NGOs are running operations in southern, eastern and central districts.
“NGO neutrality was the determining factor in most targeted attacks and abductions conducted by AOG this year,” it said.
ANSO said the Taliban and most other AOGs were not systematically targeting NGOs and seemed to be making some effort to distinguish between neutral and non-neutral actors.
“Neutrality and local acceptance, not the military or counter-insurgency, have become the dominant factors of security for NGOs in the vast areas of the country now dominated or controlled by the Taliban and other armed opposition groups,” it said.
To back this assertion, ANSO said most of the 59 NGO staff abducted by insurgents in 2009 were released unharmed after their “neutrality” and local acceptance were verified.
UN involvement in political projects such as elections, the report said, had led to direct attacks on the UN: on 28 October an attack on a guest house killed five UN staff .
Some aid agencies have voiced concern about the so-called “militarization” of aid by top donors to Afghanistan
ANSO warned that NGOs could increasingly come into contact with insurgents if the latter establish a more permanent presence in densely populated areas in the west and north. In these circumstances NGOs believed to be supporting counter-insurgency projects could be at great risk, it said.
“NGOs should also continue to be wary of attempts by IMF [international military forces] and some donors to lure NGOs into areas recently ‘secured’ by IMF, as these are some of the most dangerous areas for NGOs due to the risk of being associated with the military effort,” the report says.
ANSO is funded by European donors and provides free security advice to member NGOs.
Some aid agencies have voiced concern about the so-called “militarization” of aid by top donors to Afghanistan - adversely affecting their neutrality and impartiality.
Lex Kassenberg, country director of CARE International, said NGOs have to build and maintain good relations with beneficiary communities, something that often required time.
“Some donors do not appreciate this,” he told IRIN, adding that mutual confidence and local acceptance were critical for NGO security.
* This article was amended on 20 January 2010 with a new headline and lead paragraph.
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