No relief: surveying the effects of gun violence on aid workers
by Robert Muggah, Small Arms Survey, with Cate Buchanan, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue October 2005

Humanitarian and development personnel faced an unusual surge in intentional violence and intimidation during 2004. More than 100 UN civilian and NGO personnel were killed in violence around the world between July 2003 and July 2004. Although the absence of reliable data on intentional violence precludes a precise reading of its many dimensions, the consequences of gun violence on the safety and security of relief workers, and on their access to civilians, have been profound. Attesting to the seriousness of this issue, the UN High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change strongly condemned the increasing risks encountered by relief and development workers, and recommended the establishment of a new Directorate of Security.

The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey and Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue have documented the multi-faceted effects of armed violence on aid workers since 2001. Between 2003 and 2005, these organizations conducted the largest victimisation survey of humanitarian and development workers ever undertaken. Entitled No Relief, the goals of the survey were to highlight the scale and distribution of weapons in areas where aid agencies work; review the impact of arms availability on the quality and quantity of relief and development assistance; and document the human cost of gun violence on civilians, including aid workers.

Key findings and main observations

The survey covered more than 2,000 respondents from over 17 international agencies in 96 countries and territories. Almost one in five respondents reported being involved in a security incident in the previous six months. While much is often made of the deliberate targeting of aid workers by insurgents and warring factions, by far the biggest risk is from criminal violence, such as armed assault, armed robbery, intimidation and rape at gunpoint. The Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), Uganda and Iraq emerge as among the most dangerous places in the world for aid work. Other countries of concern include Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Guinea, Kenya and Nepal.

Armed violence prevents humanitarian and development workers from accessing beneficiaries. In fact, there is a direct correlation between the perceived availability of small arms and the presence of armed violence and the access of aid workers to beneficiaries. More than 20% of respondents reported that a quarter or more of their target groups were rendered inaccessible in the previous six months due to the presence of routine armed threats. At least one in three respondents reported the suspension of an operation during the previous six months due to armed conflict; one in four reported that they had had an operation suspended in response to armed criminality.

Aid agencies are increasingly turning to armed guards to protect themselves against violence. There appears to have been a significant increase in the use of armed guards by participating agencies, with one in three respondents reporting the use of guards in 2004 (as compared to one in five in 2003). It appears that, along with the promotion of acceptance, the hardening of targets, particularly the contracting of private security guards, is a common response to mitigating the risks of intentional violence.

The survey also detected a gradual increase in the proportion of all staff receiving security training between 2001 and 2004. Expatriates are still more likely to have received training than national staff (74%, as against 43%). An aid worker’s origins appear to be a more accurate predictor of whether they will receive security training than the reported levels of violence in a given country.

Taking action

Most practitioners are resigned to the fact that armed violence will be a persistent feature of the humanitarian and development landscape for years to come. In response, relief agencies are beginning to adopt innovative advocacy strategies, appropriate security guidelines, improvements in safety and security training and strengthened cooperation in intelligence-gathering and intelligence-sharing. A solid evidence base should form the cornerstone of any intervention.

Formulaic top-down security strategies that rely exclusively on hardening targets, whether through the introduction of higher fences or outlays on private security, may not meaningfully alter how workers feel about their own security. More can and must be done. At the very least, donors, policy-makers and senior managers must acknowledge how violence is perceived in areas where their employees work, how the prevalence and misuse of guns inhibit access and protection and how, by focusing on behaviour and perceptions, guidelines and codes of conduct can enhance protection on the ground.

The opinions of aid workers are an invaluable and cost-effective resource in shaping the policy and practice of humanitarian and development agencies. While contiguous data on fatal and non-fatal injuries is vital, information on the subjective interpretation of insecurity, on the distribution of small arms and on the behavioural responses of staff to armed violence should inform the design and revision of threat assessments, security plans and programming efforts. Aid workers’ views must be channelled upwards in order to guide policy development.

Precise, comparable and reliable information is a precondition for the design of appropriate and robust responses. Consultancy reports and short-term assessments cannot replace rigorous and regular internal data collection efforts. Routine data collection on the perceptions of aid workers can fill an important gap. Simple and low-cost surveys, combining measurable indicators with semi-structured questions, can generate useful information for shaping interventions. If improvements in security management are to be realised, agencies must begin to collect baseline information. In fact, No Relief includes a basic template and methodology for agencies’ own annual or biennial victimisation surveys.

Humanitarian and development agencies also need to become more proactive in international and national debates associated with the reduction of armed violence. The survey documents the many ways that armed violence undermine the efforts of humanitarian and development agencies. To date, few agencies have made their own voices heard in disarmament and arms control fora. Agencies could adopt a more assertive stance in influencing and shaping UN negotiations on the reform of national firearms legislation, the reduction of surplus or excess stockpiles, community-based approaches to arms reduction, restricting the trade and transfer of arms to non-state armed groups and disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) efforts.

A basic finding is the importance of redressing the disparity between expatriate and national security training. National personnel are as exposed to gun violence as expatriates. No Relief also registers the persistent and unequal access to security training between both categories. It is incumbent upon agencies to carefully consider these imbalances and the reasons for their persistence; further, they should identify strategies for rectifying and improving the quantity and quality of security training available to all staff.

Finally, there is a need for demand-driven and responsive security training, trauma counselling and victim assistance programmes. While many agencies, particularly those within the UN system, have introduced centralised and mandatory security training regimes, efforts should be made to test their effectiveness, breadth and appropriateness. Ultimately, relief agencies need to develop security policies that acknowledge how people interpret and respond to their security environment – particularly in relation to performance and the achievement of mandated objectives. In particular, increased attention to post-incident debriefing and trauma counselling services is encouraged. Thus, a priority should be attached to the elaboration of responsive security management policies that speak to local realities. Although potentially instructive, top-down and formulaic guidelines and protocols administered from headquarters may not be appropriate to the field. Security procedures should be regularly updated to match the heterogeneous conditions in which humanitarian and development aid workers find themselves.

Robert Muggah is a Project Manager for the Small Arms Survey, a professional fellow of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford. Cate Buchanan is with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Geneva. This article draws on a four-year project undertaken in cooperation with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and 17 humanitarian and development agencies. The final report, No Relief: Surveying the Effects of Gun Violence on Humanitarian and Development Personnel by Robert Muggah and Cate Buchanan, is available at and

References and further reading

Ryan Beasley, Cate Buchanan and Robert Muggah, In the Line of Fire: Surveying the Perceptions of Humanitarian and Development Personnel of the Impacts of Small Arms and Light Weapons (Geneva: Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and Small Arms Survey, 2003). Available in French, Spanish and English at: http://www.smallarmssurvey.organd

ECHO, Report on Security of Humanitarian Personnel Standards and Practices for the Security of Humanitarian Personnel and Advocacy for Humanitarian Space (Brussels: ECHO, 2004). Available at:

Dennis King, ‘Paying the Ultimate Price: An Analysis of Aid-worker Fatalities’, Humanitarian Exchange, no. 21, July 2002,

Joanna Macrae and Adele Harmer (eds), Humanitarian Action and the Global War on Terror: A Review of Trends and Issues, HPG Report 14, July 2003.

 Robert Muggah with Martin Griffiths, Reconsidering the Tools of War, Network Paper 39 (London: ODI, 2002).

 Elizabeth Rowley and Gilbert Burnham, Interim Update to the CHD and SAS on the Johns Hopkins Study, mimeo, February 2005. Small Arms Survey, Small Arms Survey 2005: Weapons at War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

 UN OCHA, ‘Maintaining a UN Humanitarian Presence in Periods of High Insecurity: Learning from Others’,

OCHA/ECHA Core Group Final Report (New York: OCHA, 2004).

UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility (New York: UN, 2004),