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The Challenges Of Aid Work In Conflict Zones


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington; Neal Conan is away. Warzones almost unfailingly create a certain kind of temporary population, a kind of cast of participants interacting with each other.

There are, of course, the combatants on either side. There are the civilians caught in the crossfire. There are journalists who rush in to report on the conditions in the conflict. There are diplomats who shuttle in and out in an effort to end the conflict. And one other role you nearly always see filled is that of the aid worker, and in some ways, this is the most complex role of all because they are there to do a lot, often with very little, entering as noncombatants, unarmed, only there to help sometimes even when one or both sides don't want to help to get in.

They show up with field hospitals and systems for providing clean water and with emergency food supplies and with skills to get schools started again and even to help get constitutions written. Some work for governments, some work for well-known humanitarian organizations, and some work for private nonprofit, for-profit groups.

They have to be, if they want to succeed, exceedingly sophisticated at understanding human nature and at reading dangerous situations because they can and sometimes do pay with their lives. In fact, their job is getting more and more dangerous. With attacks on aid workers rising since 9/11, one report says that more than 240 aid workers were killed in 2010.

Sometimes they're mistaken for the military, and others fall victim to violence from groups who just don't want them there, like al-Shabaab in Somalia. If you have been an aid worker in a conflict zone, we want to ask you to tell us from your firsthand experience what don't we understand about the job you do and how you do it.

Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later on in the program, The Opinion Page, Eldon Ham on why on-field dirty hits in sports should be punishable by the law.

But first, though, aid workers in a post-9/11 world. I want to bring into the conversation Michael Kocher. He is vice president of International Programs for the International Rescue Committee, and he was a member of the first emergency team to enter Iraq in 2003. Michael Kocher, thanks very much for joining us. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MICHAEL KOCHER: Thank you very much.

DONVAN: So Michael, you went into Iraq immediately after the invasion in 2003. Give us an insight into what the challenges are literally on the geography of this, literally on getting into the country when, in fact, there is still combat taking place, when in fact it wasn't entirely clear who owned or ran the country at that point. How did you do it, and where did you go?

KOCHER: All good points. We started from Kuwait, where there are a number of other international organizations. It was unclear at the time the extent to which there was going to be massive displacement, refugee flows, humanitarian need. We knew that there were needs in Iraq, surely things around water, sanitation already.

So we were in Kuwait. We went in with a team. We did our homework, spoke with Iraqis that we knew and could be in touch with and a range of other individuals and organizations in Kuwait. We entered through the border crossing at Umm Qasr, various points, and traveled quite extensively in southern Iraq during those weeks.

Eventually, we established an Iraq Country Program - north, central and south Iraq - that continues to this day.

DONVAN: And, you know, so often people do hear about aid workers showing up on a scene, and I don't think it occurs to all of us that logistically, as you just explained, you need to get there. But at that time, in terms of permission, did you actually need anybody's permission to be there, given that Saddam's regime was on the run and given that it wasn't sovereign and never has been sovereign U.S. territory or British territory.

And the British, I believe, were in military control of that area at the time that you went in. Did you need to say to anybody: We're going to be here, and we would like your permission to move and to operate? And then they had to tell you where you could go and where you couldn't go?

KOCHER: The answer to that question is no, we didn't. We had to have permission from the Kuwaiti authorities, of course, to enter Kuwait, work out of Kuwait and go back and forth over the border. But as you note, at that point there was no one in Iraq to get permission from. So we did not.

We are now working in Iraq, and we are there registered and with the understanding and consent of the Iraqi government.

DONVAN: Given that you're walking into the middle of a warzone, literally riding, I realize, but I'm using this term figuratively, entering into the middle of a warzone, and it's dangerous, things are unpredictable, people may not know who you are, you may not know the lay of the land exceedingly well, not from firsthand experience or the kind that you would ultimately get, how do you stay safe? And how do you explain to people, and in this case the Iraqis, how do you explain to them who you are and what you're doing there?

KOCHER: Good question. A number of things go into that. First of all, no one was going to mistake us for military. We are in civilian garb. We're in civilian vehicles. We actually rented cars in Kuwait, unmarked sedans, and drove them over. We looked quite low-key, to put it mildly.

But, you know, there was a lot of information in Kuwait at the time, different groups, the United Nations, other NGOs, humanitarian affairs coordination and so on. So there was a lot of information to be had in Kuwait. We had information before we even went to Kuwait.

And information was coming out of Iraq piecemeal at that time. We took it very slowly, literally at some points a kilometer at a time. We had satellite phones. We had maps. We had good contacts. We had some local contacts in the places where we went, whether it was Basra, Nazaria, other places in the country.

We took it slowly. We were very, very cautious. You know, we do not approach this with a cowboy mentality. The stakes are far too high. We took our time, and it led to some good programming at the time, especially around health and water sanitation, some children's protection work. And as I said, over the years, it has developed into now a very solid country program in Iraq, although obviously given the state of Iraq today, one not without its own challenges and dangers.

DONVAN: I want to also bring into the conversation Michael Delaney. He is the director of humanitarian response for Oxfam America and has overseen Oxfam America's emergency responses around the world now for 13 years. Michael, you're well-positioned to answer the question that I want to put to you based off of something Michael Kocher just said, when he said you're not cowboys.

But nevertheless, you're in a, to put it mildly, very, very fluid situation. It's not for the faint of heart, the work that the people in your field do. So who are the people who go into your field? Is there a type or a couple of types of personalities?

MICHAEL DELANEY: I think in many ways, it's people who have a strong conviction. Many times are drawn into it from a social justice background; people who care and believe that the world is one body, one humanity and really feel that everyone has a right to aid no matter what their politics or religion.

DONVAN: We're talking about aid workers, and more than ever, they're working in conflict zones. And we want to talk to those of you in our audience who are listening who have been in this situation as an aid worker in a conflict zone. We want to know what the - the rest of us, the civilians, so to speak, what the rest of us don't understand about the challenges of the job that you face when you go out there.

And again to you, Michael Delaney, you know, journalists had traditionally counted on the notion that when they go in to cover an armed conflict that by their very definition, they declare their - neutrality may be the word or their impartiality, certainly their non-involvement as combatants and claim for themselves the freedom to move to both sides, or all sides, let's put it that way, across the battle line, through the no-man's land by the hopefully self-evident claim that they are there not to be involved but to hear everybody.

And I want to know, does it work that way for you? And one way to declare your neutrality is to not be armed and to wear civilian clothing and to look as non-military as possible. Does it work that way for people in the aid field as well?

DELANEY: Yes, I think you'll find that many organizations do hold impartiality as their highest goal. And they try to provide aid for both sides, especially in a conflict, to provide aid for both sides. However, at times, that is not always allowed. Whether it's the government - we're seeing - many of the conflicts, you know, between actual governments are a thing of the past.

It's really - the conflicts that many of the aid organizations are responding to are internal conflicts, and so given permission by a government to respond maybe on one side, but then you need to get permission on the other side, as well. And so a lot of negotiation goes into this, and trying to be impartial is really the way that aid organizations do that.

DONVAN: Michael Kocher, if there's - are you in a situation sometimes where A is fighting against B, and you need to get permission from both sides to do your work, does B hold it against you that you're even talking to A?

KOCHER: Yes, there are examples where that has happened in the past, and it's a tricky thing to navigate. I think Michael, my colleague, makes a good point, and I think we have to distinguish between impartiality and neutrality.

DONVAN: What is the distinction?

KOCHER: Impartiality is being non-discriminatory. We hold it very dear. We're impartial in providing assistance without discriminating as to ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political opinion, race, religion. We're guided by needs and what we know to be effective, and we give priority to the most vulnerable.

Neutrality, I think, is - you know, we do not hold neutrality dear. In fact, we don't believe in neutrality. We believe in things, and we believe in them strongly. Just going to a place, frankly, can be a non-neutral statement. We believe in girls' education. We believe women should be empowered and protected.

You know, we're not neutral to genocide, the killing of civilians, sexual violation, forced migration. So that is a distinction to keep in mind just in the language we use.

DONVAN: All right, we're talking to Michael Kocher. He's vice president of international programs for the International Rescue Community; and another Michael, Michael Delaney, who is director of humanitarian response for Oxfam America. And we want to talk with you in our audience who have been involved in this field work as aid workers.

And also, we're going to take a break, but when we come back from the break to talk about the increasing sense of risk and danger. It's happening to journalists, but it's also happening, I think even with greater severity, in your field. To find out why it's become more dangerous to do this work now, when you're working in a conflict zone, and if you've experienced this, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. And the email address is talk@npr.org. We'll have more of your calls in just a moment. I'm John Donvan, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. Even before a U.S. soldier allegedly opened fire and murdered 16 Afghan civilians, and the Taliban promised to avenge those deaths, the New York Times had been reporting that some aid and development workers in that country had started to arm themselves.

Afghanistan is unique in that the government plans to ban private security companies, and the vast majority of aid workers avoid guns and anything that might raise questions about their role in the country. But the fact remains, the work of aid groups is getting more dangerous as they continue to operate in conflict zones.

If you've been an aid worker in a conflict zone, what don't we understand about the job you have to do? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests today are Michael Delaney; he's director of humanitarian response for Oxfam America, and he oversees that organization's emergency responses globally; and Michael Kocher, who is the vice president of International Programs for the International Rescue Committee.

And Michael Kocher, you had told us before we went on the air that your workers in Afghanistan today are in more danger than they were in 2004. What accounts for that?

KOCHER: Well, I think a number of things account for it. Let me just start by saying that our hearts all go out to the communities and the families in Kandahar. It's an unspeakable tragedy. There are myriad reasons, I think, for increased insecurity in Afghanistan and broadly in the places where we're working. There are more armed groups.

These groups may be well organized. They may be quite fractured. You're not always clear who's doing what. It's a failed state, obviously, in many respects, certainly outside of Kabul. There are increased tensions around the war on terror, and civilians are increasingly dying as a result of the conflict.

It's a very complicated, tense environment. We have worked there for 20-some years. We have deep ties in the communities where we're working: in Kabul, Logar, Gardez, Herat, Baktia(ph), Helmund. We don't work in Kandahar, but we work in many places across the country, and we rely upon those communities. Community acceptance is a main tenet of our security.

We hire local people. We work with local communities. We engage them in our projects, in the design, in the monitoring and how we allocate resources. So you know, we are there because they welcome us there, and they are very, very important to our security.

DONVAN: How long does it take for them to trust you? Let's use Afghanistan as an example, since it's recent. How long does it take a local community to trust these outsiders who don't speak their language and don't look like them and maybe look like an invading force, like the invading force that's also present? How do you build trust that you guys are there for a different reason?

KOCHER: Good question. Look, it takes time to build trust in any context, anywhere. That's exacerbated, obviously, in the situation that is Afghanistan. The vast majority of our workforce in Afghanistan are Afghan nationals. So it's not true that our people do not speak the language. You know, they are from the communities where we're working.

That goes a long way right there toward building trust. There are some parts of the country where we're working where we will not send international staff because of security, because it would not do the programs or our national staff any favor. Other places we can go. But it's our - you know, we put - appropriately, it's just good development practice, good assistance practice.

The national staff in the places where we're working, trained as need be, you know, resourced and so on, but they're the face of our work, and that goes a long way toward both effective projects and overall security.

DONVAN: We've been asking, if you're an aid worker in a conflict zone to share with us your stories about what - perhaps what you didn't know before you actually did the work that the rest of us don't know and that we should understand. Our number is 800-989-8255. And our email address is talk@npr.org.

And I want to bring into the conversation now Christine(ph), who is in Lansing, Michigan. Hi, Christine, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

CHRISTINE: Hi, thanks for taking my call.


CHRISTINE: Yeah, I had done some work over in the Philippines, and I can't mention the agency that I was with...

DONVAN: That's fine.

CHRISTINE: But one of the main things, I think, and it's funny that you mentioned building the trust - it's hard sometimes with some of the people over there to - even though you're there to help them, to, you know, to offer up trust for you because of some of our past actions in that country. And I think some of the things that people maybe stateside that don't understand when the volunteers go over there, like in my case, being a woman, there's not an equality feeling over in the Philippines about women, and going over there and having to prove myself once as a woman and then as an American trying to provide help, it was very difficult.

DONVAN: Let me ask Michael Delaney to come in on this, and Michael, in a way, I think, what Christine is sharing with us is that she's defined by what she looks like. She's defined by her sex and she's defined by perhaps the appearance of, whatever that looks like, or the understanding by the community that she's trying to serve, that she's an American and that in both of those cases, perhaps to the local community, that represents some baggage that they're uncomfortable with.

So we are who we are as individuals. How do you train for and blend into working with a community that may have some preconceptions about who you are?

DELANEY: Well, I think in some ways it's part distancing one from the government or the government where you're from.

DONVAN: But what do you say...

DELANEY: To be a humanitarian, it's really about connecting people to people. And you're representing the people of one country with another, and I think that the idea of, you know, working with local organizations, working with local people and for them to see what you are doing and why you are there, different from a political agenda, is what really builds the trust.

DONVAN: But does that mean literally having to have conversations where you have to say I don't represent my government?

DELANEY: Absolutely, yeah.

DONVAN: I mean, as - I spent many years as a foreign correspondent, particularly when I was working in the Arab countries; there was very often a suspicion immediately, number one, that I was working for the CIA, and so you would have endless conversations about how you're not there for the CIA.

But then you were held responsible, almost as a diplomat, for all of your country's past record. And, you know, one wants to be careful, certainly as a journalist, not to have that conversation. But sometimes it would be difficult. Does the same thing happen, Michael Kocher, with aid workers as well, that you're - say you're British and the British have done something that is unpopular, or you're American, and the U.S. government has done something that is unpopular, and you're held to account for that by the local community.

DELANEY: Yes, it absolutely happens, and a great deal of discussion and, you know, a process of getting to know one another, and these things cannot be hurried. They do happen. When I was in Iraq in a local bazaar, having tea with some people, a merchant asked me: Are you folks here to help us or are you here to occupy us?

And you know, the spirit of that question, understandable it is, it goes to the question.

DONVAN: And he didn't mean are you - is your aid organization. He meant you Americans.

DELANEY: No, he meant broadly. You know, there can be an association now, and given aspects of the post-9/11 world, the West can be sort of grouped together. I think, though, you know, I believe, and I think we see where we work, that the things that unite us are far more powerful than the things that can divide us or even have the potential to divide us, where we're working. You know, people want their children to have clean water, good health care and education.

They want livelihoods, opportunities. They want women and girls to be protected and empowered. We are arriving in these places wanting the same things, and I think that through that, the commonalities, where we're working surely outweigh and outpace the things that can divide us.

You know, look, I'm no Pollyanna. I know these things are highly nuanced. We are concerned with security profoundly, and it's an issue that is - you know, I am never without. But I think there's a way to traverse it. It's not a calculus. You can't just sort of punch numbers into a computer and get the answer.

If it's not as much art as science, it's surely as much judgment as science. But we have a lot of good people in and from the places where we're working together with us that address them, and we navigate it.

DONVAN: But the political tension can actually make the individuals who work your organizations targets, both the international staff and also the local community staff.


DONVAN: In other words, if somebody's angry at the U.S. government, they might come and target you because you think that that - whether they know the truth or not, they know that it's going to play back home that there was a killing of Americans.

DELANEY: Yes, that is possible, absolutely. I will say, where we're working - you know, we've been talking about Afghanistan. We are well-known in those communities where we're working. We've been there over two decades. They know what we're all about. They know what we do. They know what we don't do. But your broader question - it is impossible for our aid workers and our work, our industry, if you will, to be immune from issues of geopolitics, of the tension.

So you know, we are unarmed. We're in these places on the ground, and it absolutely can be dangerous. We do everything we can to try to mitigate it.

DONVAN: Do you think being unarmed is your protection, it's a declaration that you're not there to fight?

DELANEY: I do. I think it's part and parcel of our protection. It's not our sole protection. You know, I think we have to show that we are non-combatants. We are not of the military, any military, and that we are impartial, humane, and you know, we are not fighters. And therefore, it's very, very important not to have aid workers. Surely, the International Rescue Committee and, I know, others feel the same way. We will not be armed.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Sienna from San Antonio, Texas. Hi, Sienna. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

SIENNA: Yes, sir. Well, first of all, I'm not trying to compare myself to the folks that do the really dangerous work. I was with the American Red Cross for 20 years, with service to the armed forces. I did three deployments. But the American Red Cross service to armed forces serves on the military installations with the military. And when I was in Bosnia, I had some friends from the red - American Red Cross that were hired by the league, and they were out in the Bosnian communities also doing Red Cross relief work.

And what's interesting is they will occasionally come to the installation and ask me if I'd like to go to a meeting or something out in the community, and their rules, which requires never to, of course, be associated with the military were the exact opposite of mine where I was always required to be in my military uniform with my Red Cross emblem. So it just shows that there's so many differences in rules, just even for aid people that - people see as aid societies is awfully confusing to the civilians as well.

DONVAN: Well, what about that, Michael Delaney? And the fact that in certain situations, you do need to work with perhaps an invading military or even a local military to - well, I'll ask this, did they - do you need them sometimes to provide security for you? Do you need them in a minimum to tell you that this highway is clear, and it's clear because we've made it clear, and we're going to keep it clear?

DELANEY: Yeah. There are times when we have to coordinate with an occupying force or a local government, especially in a high-military environment. That is a bit different than being going out and delivering aid under armed guard, being associated with it and being a part of an agenda. And I think that's really the - how it breaks down. And sometimes, that's a very gray area. You know, in Afghanistan in the early stages, Colin Powell said, you know, that the nongovernmental organizations are a force multiplier for our U.S. agenda.

And that in many ways is associated with all the international humanitarian aid as a part of the military or political agenda. And I think trying to differentiate that and distancing ourselves is the fine line, is the tightrope that we need to play in those environments.

DONVAN: It's more of an art than a science is what it sounds like.

DELANEY: Yeah. It certainly is. And it really - I mean, to do good aid, you really need, you know, to know the local politics. You need to know the culture. You need to know the economy. And you need to know the military situation. And that's why having local people from the local environment, from the community on your staff working with local community organizations that's so important to be able to navigate those turbulent waters.

DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's have Dave from San Francisco join the conversation. Hi, Dave. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

DAVE: Hello. How are you today?

DONVAN: We're good. Thanks.

DAVE: Good. I just want to say I was working for a U.N. agency in the '90s. I worked in Sudan, Somalia and Rwanda. And we didn't hardly ever moved without a local escort which was either, you know, the SLA, the Sudanese Liberation Party, and in Rwanda, we had to move with armed guards. In Somalia, we always had technicals, which were basically people with 50-millimeter guns. And we couldn't move without guns, which is against policy, but that's what it takes to get some of the humanitarian aid out into these areas. So there was a lot of traveling with guns.

DONVAN: So, Michael Kocher, sometimes, it sounds like maybe the policies that are in place back in the home office do not apply when the fieldworker gets to the filed and the reality presents himself - itself to him or her?

KOCHER: I think phrased that way, that's a bit of overstatement. I think certainly with ourselves, we're consistent between the headquarters and the field. Look...

DONVAN: Well...

KOCHER: ...there are - may be - pardon me. There may be occasions where the only way to do something and the situation simply demands that if not, you know, the international organization, the relief organization staff are armed, but that you are using an armed escort, absolutely. That is currently the case with us. We work in Mogadishu. Our staff are not armed, but anyone in Mogadishu today trying to do anything needs armed protection. We are there doing lifesaving work, primary health care. And we think that in that instance a very limited context. That's a tradeoff to save lives. We do not use armed guards in places like South Sudan...

DONVAN: Well, the...

KOCHER: ...or Pakistan or Afghanistan or Iraq.

DONVAN: The sense of my question was does the fieldworker have to make an on-the-moment snap judgment, or would he need to stick by the policy and call back home to get clearance to do something like that?

KOCHER: Well, the - in - what you just described would be the latter, but we're in real-time conversation with our field people at the time. Happily in today's world, communications are such where we can be in contact frequently. And they have their own support system within a given country program, within a given region. That's - it goes to my earlier point that we are not cowboys, and people are not making snap-judgment decisions to go off and do something. If that happens, something very wrong is going on. And surely with my organization, Oxfam America, and others, that's not the case, and I think broadly...

DELANEY: Yeah. And there's another...

KOCHER: ...in the industry, that's not the case. But the point broadly, you know, these are very difficult decisions, judgments. You said art - the mix of art and science. And this is what we grapple with daily.

DONVAN: Michael Delaney?

DELANEY: Yes. Sorry. And the other interesting point is that, you know, years ago in humanitarian crises, we would be sending out our most, you know, junior, younger person into the environment. But as these situations have gotten more complicated, it's really - the more experience. Many times someone who's been through a number of emergencies, has a master's degree and kind of is an excellent manager, they're the ones leading these responses. And so, you know, making - sometimes they do have to make judgments, but they're in a good position to make solid judgments.

KOCHER: That's a very good point. It has gotten increasingly dangerous. I've been doing this - I started - as one of our callers, I started in Bosnia 17 years ago or so. And it has surely gotten more dangerous for this line of work. I think the good news is that the organizations engaged in it have evolved and have tighter processes and procedures and more qualified seasoned staff making such decisions.

DONVAN: Well, Michael Kocher, I want to thank you for taking the time to join us here. You're vice president of international programs for the International Rescue Committee. And also Michael Delaney, director of humanitarian response for Oxfam America. Thanks to both of you, gentlemen, for joining us on TALK OF THE NATION.

KOCHER: Thank you very much.

DELANEY: Thank you.

DONVAN: Up next, when does a vicious hit on the football field cross the line from penalty to crime? We'll talk about it on The Opinion Page. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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