Humanitarian workers risk their lives to help others

By Avishek Majumder & Priya Chetty on August 24, 2015

On 19th August, every year the world celebrates Humanitarian Day and humanism. The Day designated by the United Nations General Assembly and themed around “the world needs more…” is an opportunity to celebrate the spirit that inspires humanitarian work around the globe. In such a context, this article explores the upshot of terrorism on the humanitarian workers who constantly strive to provide assistance through humanitarian relief operations.

Consequences of terrorism on humanitarian workers

In present times terrorism has affected most parts of the world and has become an integral part of the international world order. Constant rise in Terrorism is influenced by the patterns of foreign policies devised by states. As Lia (2007) in his book Globalisation and the future of Terrorism: patterns and predictions points that the character of the international system along with the foreign policies formed by the states “influence the occurrence of terrorism, for example, by generating more conducive or more prohibitive circumstances for terrorist organisations” (39). Act of terrorism exerts a heavy toll on not only the inhabitants of a particular place but on the humanitarian workers as well. Several aid workers themselves fall victims of such heinous crimes against humanity.

United Nations declares 2013 to be the most affected year for humanitarian workers wherein, nearly 155 humanitarian workers around the world were killed, 171 injured and 134 were taken as hostages. Since the advent of the concept “war against terrorism” attacks on humanitarian workers are on the rise. Out of the total attacks on the aid workers in 30 countries, 3/4th of which has occurred in five countries which are Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan, Pakistan and Sudan. Further, as per the report of Humanitarian Outcome (2015), from 1997 to 2015 a total of 3692 national and international aid workers were attacked and nearly 1203 national and 180 international workers have been killed.

Till July this year over 100 humanitarian workers have been killed, kidnapped or injured in South Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Somalia, Afghanistan, DR Congo, Mali, Central African Republic, Pakistan, and Myanmar. The table below presents the total number of both national and international humanitarian workers who have died, kidnapped or injured between 1997 to mid-2015. Statistics reflect that, 2013 and 2014 have been the worst years for these aid workers across the world.

National and International humanitarian workers attacked, kidnapped or killed within 1997 to mid-2015
National and International humanitarian workers attacked, kidnapped or killed within 1997 to mid-2015 (Source: Humanitarian Outcomes, 2015).

However, not all consequences are negative as there are several cases, wherein people become humanitarian workers after facing the brunt of violence on themselves or by their loved ones. One such example is of Jack Kahorha, who was one of the survivors after was being displaced after the attack of armed group and is now an aid worker based on D.R. Congo as a Water/sanitation expert. He had to stay in makeshift settlements, amidst unhygienic water, scarce food and few supplies and it this struggle that inspired him to built a national organisation providing clean water, sanitation and education for displaced people[1]. There are several other such stories, however, one needs to find answers as to why are they attacked?

Attacks on humanitarian workers are apolitical

The Global Terrorism Index, presented by the Institute for Economics & Peace (2014) cites the reason behind manifold increase in attacks to religion. As 66% of attacks have been constituted by terrorist organisations based on extreme religious ideologies like, ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban and al-Qaida. But religious ideology cannot be linked with attacks on humanitarian workers who are apolitical. In most countries, motivation for crime against aid workers revolves around political or nationalistic and separatist movements.

Moslih’s (2015) opines that the motive of extremist groups in attacking humanitarian workers, especially in the Middle-East, is political. He further asserted that, the notion of peace and security is an accepted image only in western liberal democracies, to which most Muslims cannot associate. For them, a government which follows and maintains Islamic law in the country is more welcome than followers of liberal democracy, whom they mostly consider as puppets of the Western world. Amidst such perceptions, the civil relief work carried out by democratic Governments through civil-military co-ordination becomes questionable and NGOs working with such relief works are seen as “force multiplier”, hence a reasonable target.

The concept of civil-military co-ordination coined by NATO is a modern term, supported by the civil societies based in the United States. But Muslim inhabitants of the Middle-East or US occupied Muslim country believe in the ideology of Islam, where sovereignty lies with God. This has opposed the entire foundation of the military and social doctrine based on modernity, which for them is illegitimate. Such conflicts among ideologies lead to aid workers being targeted. Moslih (2015), as a solution, further opined that unless there is widening of the modernist paradigm on which NGOs operate, it will continue to be at risk of “being perceived as the soft power arm of the occupying civilization and will remain at risk being targeted”.

[1] For more stories read, United Nations ( 2015).


Priya is the co-founder and Managing Partner of Project Guru, a research and analytics firm based in Gurgaon. She is responsible for the human resource planning and operations functions. Her expertise in analytics has been used in a number of service-based industries like education and financial services.

Her foundational educational is from St. Xaviers High School (Mumbai). She also holds MBA degree in Marketing and Finance from the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, Delhi (2008).

Some of the notable projects she has worked on include:

  • Using systems thinking to improve sustainability in operations: A study carried out in Malaysia in partnership with Universiti Kuala Lumpur.
  • Assessing customer satisfaction with in-house doctors of Jiva Ayurveda (a project executed for the company)
  • Predicting the potential impact of green hydrogen microgirds (A project executed for the Government of South Africa)

She is a key contributor to the in-house research platform Knowledge Tank.

She currently holds over 300 citations from her contributions to the platform.

She has also been a guest speaker at various institutes such as JIMS (Delhi), BPIT (Delhi), and SVU (Tirupati).