Michael Delaney, Oxfam America“s director of humanitarian response, leads his agency”s response to emergencies, including the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2001 El Salvador earthquake and droughts in Ethiopia. He answered questions last week from The Washington Times” Andy Zieminski about how his agency is adapting to the increasingly hostile environments aid workers now face.
Q: Is it any more dangerous for aid workers now than it was 10 or 15 years ago?
A: In absolute terms, the numbers of acts of violence against aid workers each year since 1997 has more than doubled. During this period, the number of aid workers has also nearly doubled, so the relative risk level has increased only slightly. The trend for national staff is much worse, with twice the likelihood of violence, compared to 1997.
What we are concerned with is the growing role of the military in humanitarian work. If it is perceived that aid is associated with military operations and therefore not independent and impartial, our ability to effectively deliver assistance might be compromised and the security of aid workers may be threatened.
The recognition of impartiality has historically allowed agencies like Oxfam to work in hostile environments.
Q: Does violence against aid workers affect recruiting and the number of staff?
A: The number of people working in aid nearly doubled between 1997 and 2005. Oxfam staff numbers have followed this trend, reflecting the greater number of places in need of assistance. Oxfam always ensures that all staff we hire for conflict environments are capable of working there. We also ensure that the managers who work in these potentially unsafe environments have the experience, skills and internal training to ensure the safety of staff and the effectiveness of our operations.
Q: How are people trained to deal with potential security threats and hostile environments?
A: In countries that pose security risks, Oxfam employs a dedicated security manager and provides staff with security training during their orientation. Sometimes, restrictions are imposed on staff, limiting their movements to certain areas. In the most extreme cases, staff can only travel between a house and workplace.
Q: What can be done to make aid workers safer in places like the Darfur region of Sudan and Sri Lanka?
A: Staff need to be aware of the political, cultural and security environments that they are working in. Oxfam employs local staff and works closely with local counterpart organizations that are able to provide good analyses and warn of potential threats. Acceptance by, and gaining the respect of, host communities is key to ensuring staff safety.