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Amid war and crime: humanitarian aid in high-risk environments

09-04-2010 Interview

In some conflict areas, the ICRC has only limited access due to insecurity. This is the case, for example, in parts of Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan. Despite these difficulties it is still possible to help victims of armed conflict. The ICRC's deputy director of operations, Dominik Stillhart, explains how.

©ICRC/P. Yazdi/so-e-00426 
West of Dusamareb, Galgadud region of Somalia. Women with ICRC relief items following a distribution of emergency aid. 

©ICRC/P. Yazdi/so-e-00424 
West of Dusamareb, Galgadud region of Somalia. Women fetching water from a distribution point set up by the ICRC. 

©ICRC/B. Maver/ye-e-00729 
Al Gubba village, Yemen. A man carrying food he has just received during a distribution organized by the ICRC and the Yemen Red Crescent Society. 

©ICRC/B. Maver/af-e-01435 
Afghanistan, Balkh province, Chamtal district, village of Mula Juma Khan. Children playing on an ICRC truck during a food distribution. 
  Dominik Stillhart, the ICRC's deputy director of operations    


What makes the ICRC withdraw all or part of its staff from a particular area?  

These decisions are almost always linked to the dangers faced by our colleagues in the field. As we don't generally work with armed protection, our security in conflict areas depends on everyone, e specially those who carry arms, accepting our presence. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case, above all in places where crime is rampant and the authorities can't control it.

But pulling out staff remains the exception rather than the rule. The ICRC always tries to stay as close as possible to the people worst affected by war. We are among the very few organizations permanently present on the ground in some of the most dangerous places, for example in Kandahar in Afghanistan or Baghdad. Basically we have to find ways of really being able to help people in these situations without exposing our staff to excessive and undue risk.

One thing is certain: even if we do have to pull out staff we'll try to minimize the impact this has on our ability to assist and protect people affected by war. That also means constantly reassessing the situation on the ground to see when it's safe again to redeploy staff that had been withdrawn.


So how do you manage to work in the most dangerous situations?  

Basically we have to adapt our way of operating. In the most dangerous situations our international staff may at times face additional risks to those confronted by our local colleagues because as foreigners they attract more attention – including from criminals. To deal with this we have had to reduce field movements by international staff in some situations and to decrease the amount of time they spend in the most dangerous areas. In extreme cases we have even had to temporarily withdraw international staff, for example, following the bomb attack on our Baghdad office in 2003 or in Northern Yemen last year.  

In situations where international staff presence is limited such as much of Somalia and parts of southern Afghanistan our national staff assume more responsibility. It is our responsibility to strike the appropriate balance between relying on their knowledge of the context and doing everything possible to also minimize the risks they face in the course of their duties. 

 What else can you do?  

In these situations the close partnerships we have with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is particularly vital. Their volunteers and staff often have strong roots in these areas. In places like Northern Yemen, for example, working with our local staff and the national Red Crescent has allowed us to help thousands of displaced people over recent months – in the absence of ICRC international staff . By now, ICRC delegates have returned to Sa'ada in Northern Yemen, continuing and supporting the work of our national colleagues and the Yemeni Red Crescent.

For Somalia, even though widespread insecurity forces the ICRC to have its delegation in Nairobi rather than Mogadishu we have been able to assist an average of one million people annually over the past few years, largely thanks to the work of our Somali colleagues and to our excellent cooperation with the Somali Red Crescent on the ground. 

What is important is that even when our presence on the ground is limited we maintain contact with all parties to the conflict explaining who we are, what we do and how we do it in the hope that we can redeploy all the staff we need as soon as possible.


 Are you not concerned that this way of working increases the risk of aid being stolen or lost?  

Humanitarian aid is often an essential lifeline for millions of people in conflict zones and we do everything we can to minimize the risk of theft and misappropriation. However, this is not easy in situations often characterized by massive population displacement, damaged or destroyed infrastructure and absence of law and order. In these circumstances, humanitarian aid and the logistics involved in moving and distributing it can become an attractive target for criminal networks – irrespective of our way of working and of the extent of our presence on the ground.


 Does that mean that part of your aid is not used for its intended purpose?  

It would be naïve to pretend that there is no risk of humanitarian aid being misused. But over the years we have developed a system of checks and balances to ensure that as much as possible, our help reaches the people who need it. Key to this are our close contacts with the beneficiaries of our work and their representatives such as elders, community leaders, women and staff and volunteers of the local Red Cross or Red Crescent Society. We try to consult them after aid distributions to spot possible problems such as misappropriation or theft and to adapt our way of working accordingly. 


 What are some of the concrete steps you take to avoid the misuse of aid?  

First and foremost we try to anticipate and reduce the risk of this happening. In Somalia for example, the ICRC only pays for relief items once they have bee n delivered to the designated distribution sites. It is the responsibility of the supplier to ensure that the agreed quantity of goods gets there on time.

Another method is to focus on aid that helps entire communities but is difficult to misappropriate. At times it may be preferable to focus on providing clean water or better health services rather than on distributing relief items that could be stolen or sold off.

Last but not least, it is indispensable to work with committed staff at all levels who believe in the humanitarian objectives of the Red Cross. The ICRC has a zero tolerance policy towards any staff member found to have stolen or misappropriated relief goods. 


 Why don't you just ask local organizations to take over distributions?  

We cooperate closely with local Red Cross and Red Crescent organizations. They play an important role in our distributions. Unlike other organizations, however, the ICRC does not usually sub-contract its work to other organizations outside of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement. Our work requires being on the spot whenever possible, close to the communities affected by war so that we can assess their needs and evaluate the effectiveness of our aid.