Peter Stanford: The terrible risk of sending workers to conflict zones

Charities and their trustees need to decide on their response to kidnapping

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

The recent brutal murder in Pakistan of the Red Cross worker Khalil Dale was a reminder of the grave risks that many employees of third sector organisations run every day in their determination to help those in need around the globe.

I was reminded of the words of the fiance of Dr Karen Woo, an aid worker who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. "She knew the risks involved," he said after learning of her death at the hands of the Taliban. "But to her, helping people was worth those risks".

If that is the position of these brave individuals, surely we should confine ourselves to admiring their determination and humanity. I have never sat on the trustee board of an overseas charity, but have been closely involved with several over the years. What should the attitude be of managers and trustees back home to those who, like Dale and Woo, go in a charity's name into the midst of the world's conflicts?

Risks on the ground

My first instinct is to suggest that the duty of a trustee board is to insist that risks are weighed and that all practical precautions are taken. Yet how, once you start weighing risks, could you countenance sending anyone at all to Afghanistan, Somalia, or the more lawless regions of Sudan and Pakistan? And safeguards that seem sensible in the calm, rational, safe environment of a boardroom will potentially carry a very different message when they are translated to the field.

My experience doesn't even make it onto the scale of the risks faced by the likes of Dale and Woo, but I once had the tiniest glimpse of the daily reality of their working lives on a trip to Angola in 2004. The civil war there had just ended after three decades, leaving what is potentially one of the wealthiest nations in Africa on its knees.

I went on a trip with Cafod, the Catholic development agency, to witness the truly outstanding work it was doing with refugees. We went to one of its camps near the flattened eastern city of Uige and walked round talking to families that had absolutely nothing, housed in the most basic of conditions and waiting interminably for some sort of political resolution that would allow them to go back to their homes. They were angry and frustrated as they explained their plight. No one was taking any notice, they complained. No one even bothered to visit.

And then the mood among some of the younger men turned ugly. Their frustration boiled over. I didn't know at the time what was going through their heads, but afterwards one of our minders speculated that taking a rare western visitor captive would certainly have moved their plight to the top of the agenda. For what was probably minutes, but felt like hours, we ran back to our vehicle and made our escape. I was scared, and in my fear my goodwill towards those refugees was strained. Even writing about it now, at such a distance, brings back that twisted mess of feelings.

Ransom dilemma

The threat there probably wasn't very serious, but one issue charities and their trustees do need to decide on is their response to kidnapping. Would they ever pay a ransom? Governments, of course, steadfastly refuse to do so, but families react differently, geopolitical concerns mattering less to them than their loved one's safety. In March, for example, the British hostage Judith Tebbutt was released by Somali pirates after a ransom had been paid by negotiators working with her children. And in the same region, shipping companies apparently use the same negotiators to channel the funds that secure the release of their kidnapped crews.

Where do charities stand on this? At present, alongside governments in refusing to pay. And in the cold light of day, that is the only logical position. But I do not envy their trustees the task of sticking to that logic when the life of an employee is at risk. It is a terrible human dilemma.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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