Aid in Danger: The Perils and Promise of Humanitarianism (Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights)

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Humanitarian aid workers increasingly remain present in contexts of violence and are injured, kidnapped, and killed as a result. Since 9/11 and in response to these dangers, aid organizations have fortified themselves to shield their staff and programs from outside threats. In Aid in Danger, Larissa Fast critically examines the causes of violence against aid workers and the consequences of the approaches aid agencies use to protect themselves from attack.

Based on more than a decade of research, Aid in Danger explores the assumptions underpinning existing explanations of and responses to violence against aid workers. According to Fast, most explanations of attacks locate the causes externally and maintain an image of aid workers as an exceptional category of civilians. The resulting approaches to security rely on separation and fortification and alienate aid workers from those in need, representing both a symptom and a cause of crisis in the humanitarian system. Missing from most analyses are the internal vulnerabilities, exemplified in the everyday decisions and ordinary human frailties and organizational mistakes that sometimes contribute to the conditions leading to violence. This oversight contributes to the normalization of danger in aid work and undermines the humanitarian ethos. As an alternative, Fast proposes a relational framework that captures both external threats and internal vulnerabilities. By uncovering overlooked causes of violence, Aid in Danger offers a unique perspective on the challenges of providing aid in perilous settings and on the prospects of reforming the system in service of core humanitarian values.

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About the Author:

Larissa Fast teaches at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the Department of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


Humanitarianism is in crisis. More than a decade after 9/11 and the advent of the "war on terror," the dangers to aid workers have increased, as has the complexity of their operating environment. The humanitarian impulse to provide lifesaving assistance is under fire, literally and figuratively: literally, as aid workers from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe are attacked, injured, kidnapped, and killed, and aid agencies are prevented from accessing vulnerable populations; and figuratively, as the essence of humanitarian action—to provide life-sustaining assistance to those suffering as a result of war or natural disaster—is compromised by those who link such assistance to foreign policy or security goals. While many have analyzed the figurative challenges of conflating humanitarian action with other agendas, few have devoted attention to the literal challenge of violence against aid workers and its implications for providing aid. This issue and its attendant consequences provide a neglected yet essential lens through which to examine the state of the humanitarian system. Doing so exposes the practical and analytical challenges of providing assistance, crystallizes its ethos, and offers a pathway for reforming the system.

In 2011, 86 aid workers died, 127 were severely injured, and 95 were kidnapped in 151 incidents worldwide, representing the highest number recorded since researchers began systematically tracking such incidents in the mid-1990s (Stoddard, Harmer, and Hughes 2012). Humanitarian aid operations have evolved in complexity throughout their history, but following the "war on terror" after 2001 they changed more visibly, with an increasing sophistication and fortification in the provision of security for aid workers. These changes are both symptom and cause of the crisis in the humanitarian system. By delving into these changes, I seek not to explain why incidents are increasing but instead to explore the rhetorical constructions of explanations for violence against aid workers and the responses they engender. This project therefore entails examining from a multidisciplinary perspective the assumptions that underlie these constructions. At heart, aid work is a moral and practical good, that is, a compassionate and relational response to the suffering of others. Unfortunately, certain conceptualizations of the causes of the violence and the strategies to protect aid workers inhibit the effectiveness of those strategies, contribute to the normalization of danger in aid work, and undermine precisely those values they are supposed to uphold. Those who manage security for aid operations must take into account a range of possible causes of and responses to violence against aid delivery. In some cases, local, national, or global political and social conditions sow the seeds of security incidents. From Libya to Sri Lanka, providing assistance in the midst of war and deadly conflict is inherently dangerous work. In Pakistan and Somalia, the politics of terror shapes the operating environment and augments the risks for individual aid workers and aid agencies. In Chechnya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, aid agencies have evacuated staff or suspended programs for security reasons. For some organizations and in some contexts, the concern for security trumps other considerations about where and how to operate. Others pay less attention to managing risk, calculating threat, and mitigating the effects of threats and actual safety or security incidents.

In all contexts, however, the risks to aid workers are also ordinary, even mundane. They are embedded in everyday decisions about whom to hire or where aid workers eat and live. Hiring practices can play into long- standing grievances and cause resentment between parties to a conflict or even among those with or without gainful employment. Lifestyle choices—for example, when aid workers frequent restaurants or entertainment establishments offering fare that exceeds the means of the local population—can magnify perceptions of the aid world as the domain of the "haves" in a sea of "havenots." These actions can feed into stereotypes and perceived injustices that create the conditions that may result in security incidents. Obviously not every decision and program, whether individual or organizational, affects local perceptions of aid workers and organizations. Those who ignore these factors, however, do so at their own peril.

In analyzing threat and risk, it is tempting to rely on myopic explanations that emphasize the politicization of aid, the rise in global terror, or the increasingly blurred boundaries between civilian and military actors. Indeed, these oft-cited and compelling explanations have become axioms, accepted at face value and virtually unquestioned as the primary causal mechanisms of violence against aid workers. These factors undoubtedly complicate access to vulnerable populations and compromise the safety and security of aid workers and agencies. An exclusionary analysis of this kind, however, promotes an image of humanitarians as exceptions, operating outside of the conflict dynamics that surround them, and as exceptional, part of a special category of civilians deserving attention and protection. Therefore, these explanations serve to perpetuate the lauded role of aid actors in the public imagination and to maintain an analytical lens that preserves the exceptionalism of humanitarian actors. Moreover, it privileges external factors, which are largely beyond the control of humanitarian actors, as responsible for an increase in violence against them and serves to silence those internal, microlevel factors over which humanitarians do exercise influence, such as personal behavior and choices, security protocols, or the hiring and firing policies of individual agencies. When providing aid in contexts of danger, this is not and cannot be enough. Instead, an analytical framing of these issues that challenges the axiomatic discourses and that seeks to more accurately capture the complexity of the interrelated dimensions characterizing aid in danger is necessary.

While focusing exclusively on internal vulnerabilities negates the contextual dimension of attacks, organizations that calculate risk and vulnerability by focusing exclusively— or even primarily— on external threats place themselves in a reactive mode to the violence around them. Addressing external threats privileges high walls, alarms, guards, and even counterthreats, such as armed escorts for aid delivery. Of course, humanitarians must anticipate external threats and prepare to mitigate the likelihood and impact of an attack. Equipping vehicles with blast plates on the undercarriage and covering windows with protective film that minimizes flying glass shards, for example, limit the impact of an explosion, should one occur. Such measures offer a degree of protection and address the symptoms, if not the causes, of attack. Unfortunately, a priori decisions to react and harden against attack create humanitarian fortresses that further separate aid workers from the populations they assist and help to create a situation in which fear threatens to eclipse the humanitarian imagination. These mechanisms may save lives, but at what cost? By contrast, providing assistance in ways that privilege the relational element of humanitarianism offers an antidote to exceptionalism and a way to reassert the humanitarian ethos in the midst of war and violence.

Exceptionalizing Aid

Humanitarian assistance has long been contested. Depending on the eye of the beholder, it is seen as an individual, compassionate response to the suffering of others, as altruistic (if paternalistic) charity from rich to poor, or as a symbol of a manipulative desire and intention to remake the recipient of aid in the image of the provider. These interpretations generate competing visions of who provides aid, how they provide aid, and what is their ultimate purpose. By "aid," I refer to the emergency/relief and development assistance that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as CARE, Oxfam, and Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and international organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) provide, and not to the bilateral and multilateral aid that governments provide and receive. At the risk of furthering the existing terminological confusion, however, I use the terms "humanitarian" and "aid worker" interchangeably throughout the book, employing them in a specific and limited way to refer to aid workers living and working in violent contexts. My focus, therefore, is on violence against aid workers and aid agencies that provide aid in the context of violence or insecurity. This approach necessitates an analysis of those actors that operate from a narrow and principled humanitarian approach, such as the ICRC, as well as those operating from a stance that expands or modifies these principles. The latter include relief and development NGOs that espouse a solidarist or faith-based stance and those that provide both emergency, short-term relief and long-term development assistance. In doing so, I join those seeking to move beyond the traditional debates that have defined the analysis of humanitarianism (Barnett 2011; Donini 2012), such as whether humanitarian action is political or apolitical in nature or how the transition between providing relief, on the one hand, and reconstruction or development assistance, on the other, should be managed. By contrast, I do not intend to conflate emergency relief with development or reconstruction activities or to equate these types of assistance, since their purposes and circumstances differ.

I use the terms "humanitarian" and "aid worker" synonymously for three interconnected reasons. First, most "humanitarians" are in fact aid workers. They are employed by agencies that do not espouse, either in language or in practice, all four of the core principles of humanitarian action. The first of these, humanity, is central to my argument. Throughout the book, I use humanity to refer to the universal and inherent dignity and equality of the person, refined by an acknowledgment that humans are social, and therefore relational and interdependent, beings. The remaining three core principles are those of neutrality (not taking sides in a conflict), impartiality (providing assistance according to need and without discrimination based on characteristics such as religion or ethnicity), and in dependence (possessing autonomy of action). Aside from those who care deeply about terminological precision and its theoretical and practical implications, most people observing or benefitting from such assistance (and arguably the perpetrators of violence against them) do not distinguish one category from the other. Nevertheless, the principles remain analytically and operationally relevant. Humanitarians (in the principled, narrow sense) pursue their activities differently than do many development or multimandate agencies, with both reflecting their respective guiding principles and organizational missions. Irrespective of their principled stance, I propose that all aid actors operating in conflict zones need to reassert humanity as their central guiding principle. Second, my area of inquiry in this book is the context of violence and the provision of assistance in situations of danger. Thus, recognizing that aid workers in contexts of violence work both in a purely humanitarian capacity and on traditional development programs, I endeavor to move beyond the dichotomy of political and apolitical humanitarian actors to focus on the contexts in which they operate. Violent contexts are, more often than not, places where emergency humanitarian assistance prevails in scope and amount over other types of assistance. Moreover, violent contexts are high- stress environments in which international organizations tend to employ hardened security strategies and more expatriate staff, ratcheting up the importance of internal vulnerabilities, which are rooted in individual and organizational actions and inactions. This potent combination complicates the provision of aid in violent situations.

Third, all aid agencies, whether operating from a principled or politically engaged platform, experience security incidents as part of their operations in natural and human-caused, complex, emergency as well as nonemergency, "safe" contexts. To focus solely on the narrowly defined humanitarians misses a significant population for whom the issues I discuss in this book are or should be of central concern.

In what follows, I argue that a "humanitarian exceptionalism" characterizes conceptions of aid actors as a special category of actor in the international system, with particular implications for both the analysis of the causes of and the responses to the violence they experience. By exceptionalism I mean that aid actors are seen as outside of (as opposed to within) the conflict systems in which they operate, and that they are categorized as a special category of civilians deserving attention and protection. The implications of exceptionalism are threefold: as exceptions, aid actors are or should be immune from the violence within which they operate, while their exceptional nature creates hierarchies of ascribed internal (foreigner over national) and external (aid worker over other civilians) values that simultaneously privilege external threat as the primary cause of violence against them. I recognize that in writing this book, I am equally (and perhaps more so) guilty of exceptionalizing aid workers. Yet it is precisely this issue that I wish to interrogate further, even if to do so emphasizes the exceptionalism I hope to dismantle. This humanitarian exceptionalism derives from images of aid workers as helpers and rescuers, and from the principles of neutrality and impartiality as well as from the legal mechanisms that codify aid workers as separate. In this way, the laudable purpose of the humanitarian endeavor serves to silence explanations that may attribute responsibility to aid actors themselves. These "silent" or hidden dimensions of cause, which I term "internal vulnerabilities," are underconceptualized and inhibit a more complete theoretical understanding of the causes and dynamics of violence. They are apparent in the reluctance to tarnish the hallowed image and admirable intentions of aid workers and agencies, exhibiting the "moral untouchability" and hierarchies of humanitarianism (Fassin 2010b), and in the tendency to foreground the objects or recipients of aid while neglecting the actions and lifestyles of the givers of aid and their attendant practical and ethical implications (Fechter 2012; see also Autesserre 2014). For a sector that depends on the generosity of donors to support their work, this image is valuable; the cost of a tarnished reputation can be significant. The result is the maintenance of a public silence about the internal vulnerabilities that contribute to security incidents and an analysis that sees aid actors as outside of and not embedded within the complex and interdependent worldwide system of actors and relationships.

The roots of this exceptionalism are manifested through an examination of dichotomous and competing visions of aid. These binaries serve as heuristic devices (as opposed to absolutes) to capture archetypal discourses and images that describe how the essential character of aid is framed as a matter of either principles or politics, and how the aid system is depicted as instrument of empire or tales of rescue. Aid workers themselves typically are characterized either as heroic-my...

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