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Then and Now: 25 years of aid worker (in)security

A timeline of violence against humanitarians, and the evolving efforts to keep them safe.

Aid workers participate in "I am #NotATarget" campaign while distributing food in Tukaraq, Somalia. (Pedram Yazdi/ICRC )

This week’s deadly attack on a World Food Programme convoy visiting a school in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is a reminder of the risks faced by humanitarians. Around the world, aid workers expressed shock and sadness, repeating calls they are #NotATarget.

For a time, aid workers didn’t really consider these kinds of dangers. Throughout the 1990s, humanitarians operated with loose security restrictions, moving freely in even the most dangerous operating environments. International aid workers from the UN and INGOs felt protected – for the most part – due to their perceived neutrality and apolitical goodwill. 

The early 2000s was a turning point. Humanitarianism was becoming more politicised. Arguably, its aura of neutrality was slipping. Its workers found themselves deliberately targeted, and increasingly attacked.

A wake-up call came with the 2003 suicide truck bombing on the UN headquarters at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad that killed 22 people. The next years brought further hostility towards aid workers, with deadly violence against NGO staff in Sri Lanka and the UN in Algiers.

These high-profile attacks ushered in an era of greater caution: Agencies tightened restrictions and beefed up security policies and approaches. But these methods – whether bunkerisation, remote management, or deconfliction – have had varying success at keeping aid workers safe, and come with significant ethical and operational implications, including putting local staff more in harm’s way.

Read more → Mapped: 15 years of aid worker attacks

Starting with the “cowboy/cowgirl” culture of the 1990s (“chevaliers” in the Francophone aid community), this timeline tracks the growing violence towards aid workers – from Chechnya to Sri Lanka, from Syria to Yemen – and catalogues the evolving approaches to security that allow humanitarian operations to continue, while attempting to keep staff safe.

Hannah Stoddard contributed research and reporting.

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