Aiding Security or Securing Aid? – Ian Getty

The securitisation of aid is a concept which has become prominent in recent international dialogue, particularly since 9/11, the “War on Terror” and the emergence of an ideology that sees weak and fragile states as a threat to global security. Much of the debate however has been focussed at a strategic, governmental level and concerns the policy of using aid as a tool for national security and the effect this will have on humanitarian actions.  Howell and Lind describe how US ‘security interests have been sufficient to shape the objectives…and practices of aid policy…in significant ways’ (Howell and Lind, 2009: 719); Orbie and Del Biondo argue that ‘security objectives tend to dominate EU policies’ (Orbie and Del Biondo, 2015: 250); and Hameiri discusses how ‘the most notable trend of recent years in the development of the Australian overseas aid programme has been its “securitisation”’ (Hameiri, 2008).  Much less has been done concerning security and aid at the operational or tactical level, and in this regard two key areas warrant further investigation; the evolving threat to those involved in aid programmes “in the field”; and what measures can be taken to negate this threat whilst ensuring humanitarian norms and standards are maintained.

There can be no doubt that the threat to aid workers has changed, particularly since the end of the Cold War and traditional models of security based on neutrality and “good will” may no longer be effective. Whilst institutions such as the ICRC refer to themselves as ‘specifically neutral and independent’ (ICRC, 1996), increasingly, both aid organisations and the resources they deliver are being viewed by armed groups as legitimate targets, whether it be as symbols of western power, as potential hostages or for purely material gain.  Despite this many organisations continue to conduct operations under a blanket of neutrality, arguing ‘that integrated mission structures undermine the neutrality and independence of humanitarian action’ (Harmer, 2008: 528). Unfortunately there can be serious consequences for the workers themselves and the people they seek to help when this perceived form of protection fails.  On one hand, attacks often lead to the death, injury or imprisonment of the personnel involved and the loss of vital resources, as demonstrated by cases such as the violent deaths of aid workers David Haines, Alan Henning and Peter Kassig at the hands of Islamic State.  On the other, operations may be suspended or become unfeasible, such as was the case with Medecins Sans Frontieres in Afghanistan in 2004 following the targeted killing of five of its workers (Runge, 2004).  As a result, those in need receive nothing whilst the credibility of the agencies involved decreases, resulting in an impact on legitimacy in both the eyes of the people and perhaps more importantly, external donors.

As a result of the new risks posed to humanitarian actors by the changing nature of modern conflict, difficult decisions must be made regarding the protection of those involved. The significance of the principle of neutrality must be considered in relation to the importance of mission success and the safe and efficient delivery of aid, and if necessary must become subordinate to more proactive, effective security measures.  Unfortunately, where the veil of protection provided by neutrality fails, more traditional security approaches must be used to enable the ultimate humanitarian goal to be reached; that of providing assistance where it is most needed.

Whilst the use of armed protection for humanitarian missions has often been balked at, if done correctly it will serve only to increase the effectiveness of humanitarian missions at the expense of a sometimes ineffective and outdated principle.  The benefits of such an approach are fourfold; the success rate for humanitarian enterprises will increase, in turn leading to higher levels of legitimacy, credibility and international interest; the risks to aid organisations and their staff will be vastly reduced; the deterrent effect will be noticeable and will in turn enhance the security of those involved across a wider field; and the ability of armed groups to use vulnerable populations and humanitarian resources for their own ends will be greatly diminished.

As stated above, such a “protected delivery” mechanism is certainly feasible, but only if approached correctly. Military units, such as international peacekeeping forces, will often have the professionalism and capacity to undertake such a task and may lend an air of impartiality in terms of the armed actors operating within a conflict zone, for example through the use of the famous UN “blue helmet”.  Where such forces are unavailable, or impinge on an NGO’s sense of impartiality, there is the option of Private Security Companies, who through their work in Iraq and Afghanistan, have improved vastly in their ability to provide low key risk-management and security solutions.  Funding for such an enterprise is made easier through the increase in coordinated global strategies and whole-of-government approaches, and indeed, in his thesis on this very subject, Peter Voorn highlights the fact that USAID have already embraced NGO-PSC partnerships, whilst organisations such as DfID regularly use these same PSCs to protect their representatives throughout Iraq and Afghanistan (Voorn, 2011).

In conclusion, over recent years conflict has evolved, and this has led to a significant change in the threat facing humanitarian actors. Whilst this threat remains, those same actors must adapt their approach, focussing less on principles which are no longer failsafe and more on practical security solutions which enable aid to be delivered safely to those who desperately need it.


There could be a vast array of reasons given for why an effective partnership between security and humanitarian actors is not the norm, but three major issues appear to stand out. Firstly, there is, as discussed, a focus amongst policy makers, academics and actors within both fields on the securitisation of aid as a strategy for implementing foreign policy and strengthening national security, an approach that only serves to increase the gap between security actors and those with humanitarian aims.  Secondly, the principle of impartiality is a core belief of many aid agencies and is often seen as incompatible with armed groups of any description, a view which many refuse to sway from despite the increasing risks they face in carrying out their work.  Finally, the issue of resources and funding makes a partnership difficult, be it through lack of manpower such as may be the case on peacekeeping operations, or through limited finances ruling out the use of expensive private actors.

However, whilst conflict continues to create large populations of vulnerable people and the threat to those who would help these people increases, a new, coordinated, acceptable-to-all strategy is required to enable humanitarian aid to be delivered, where it is needed, in the safest manner possible.

Reference List

Hameiri, S. (2008) ‘Risk management, neo-liberalism and the Securitisation of the Australian aid program’ Australian Journal of International Affairs 62 (3): 357 – 371.

Harmer, A. (2008) ‘Integrated Missions: A Threat to Humanitarian Security?’ International Peacekeeping 15 (4): 528 – 539.

Howell, J. and Lind, J. (2009) ‘Manufacturing Civil Society and the Limits of Legitimacy: Aid, Security and Civil Society after 9/11 in Afghanistan’ European Journal of Development Research 21 (5): 718 – 736.

Orbie, J. and Del Biondo, K. (2015) ‘The European Union’s “Comprehensive Approach” in Chad: Securitisation and/or Compartmentalisation’ Global Society 29 (2): 243 – 259.

Plattner, D. (1996) ICRC neutrality and neutrality in humanitarian assistance, Geneva: ICRC , (accessed 24th Sept 2015).

Runge, P. (2004) ‘New security threats for humanitarian aid workers’ Social Work and Society 2 (2): 233 – 236.

Voorn, P. (2011) Private security for USAID contractors: assessing a market solution for USAID security issues, , (accessed 23rd Sept 2015).

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