Dispatches from the Field: “But, is it safe?”

We’re delighted to bring you this guest post from Kelsey Hoppe, an experienced aid worker and Chief Editor of Chasing Misery: an anthology of essays by women in humanitarian responses.

While travelling recently, I had a conversation that almost every other aid worker will have experienced. I was talking to a woman I didn’t know very well and she asked what I did for a living. I said that I worked with NGOs in Pakistan. After the obligatory explanation of what an NGO is, she exclaimed, “Oh, Pakistan! You must be very brave!” 

This reaction is not uncommon and the follow-up question will frequently be, “But…are you safe there?”  There is almost no straightforward way to answer this because the truth, like most things, is complicated. The truth is that I’m not very brave – not on a daily basis anyway. And, while I have worked in certain circumstances which required bravery, Pakistan – despite what the TV Series Homeland would have you believe – isn’t one of them.  I am utterly safe most of the time in Pakistan. The only two places I have been held up at gunpoint are Darfur and Washington, DC.  But the media, in general, and movies like Blood Diamond and Beyond Borders, in particular, would have you believe that one of those places is ‘safe’ and the other is not.

It is important to remember that security is a concept and not a product. You cannot hold security or buy it. Most often we feel it when it is absent. Every person relates to the concept of security differently making it very subjective and hard to define precisely. One person might feel very secure in an environment where another person feels very fearful and afraid. Our feelings about security are largely a construct of what we are told, as well as our own experiences. This applies anywhere in the world and not just in places where there is war or disaster. A kid who grew up in a rough area of Manchester might feel perfectly safe on the street at midnight, whereas a person visiting from London might feel very afraid.  While there are certainly places in the world where there are more threats present, there aren’t certain countries on a map that we can label ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’.  As an aid worker, it’s not possible for me to tell my mother that I’ll be working in Kenya and ‘safe’. My safety depends on so many factors – Am I careful about my personal security? What area am I working in and what type of work am I doing? Is my office in a posh Nairobi suburb or in a refugee camp on the border with Somalia? Do certain people want to rob or kidnap me because of my nationality, gender or religion? Is my organisation’s work accepted by the local community? All of these things work together for – or against – my safety. My safety, at any given time, falls along a continuum which moves as I do. The key is knowing who and what threatens us and the precautions we take to be safe from these.

This doesn’t just apply to aid workers. Everyone, everywhere, all the time faces certain risks to their safety and security.  No matter where you are in the world, if you get out of bed in the morning you are accepting certain risks to your health and well-being. You could have a car accident, you could be involved in a crime, or you could slip and fall down the stairs. In order to deal with the inherent insecurity of living we adopt certain mitigation measures which become so routine that we often don’t think about them as such. We put on our seat belts when in a car and follow speed limits. We hold the railing and look out for spills when dashing down the stairs. Aid workers and organisations do this on a somewhat larger scale. A good aid organisation will have scanned the environment and know which threats are present for their staff in order to do the job they came to do. Obviously, given that the mandate of most aid organisations is to provide humanitarian goods and services to those suffering from war and disaster this will mean working in places where there are more threats to health and safety than in, say, Norway.

When an aid worker starts working for an organization, that organization will tell the person the threats that are present in the job they’re going to do, and in the country they’re going to live in, and then it is up to the individual to decide if they want to accept those risks. There might be all sorts of reasons why not to accept them – not everyone can, or wants, to be in personal danger, not everyone’s family will accept them being in dangerous places. But, at the end of the day, it’s a personal decision. Humanitarian aid is a job and you need to love all the aspects of the job to keep doing it. This means embracing a certain amount of risk to your personal safety and security as well as celebrating the freedom you have to make that decision. If an aid worker doesn’t believe that the organisation offering them the job, or internship, hasn’t fully understood or communicated the risks to them personally, then that person should not sign on the dotted line.

I do not want to downplay some of the extremely difficult and risky environments into which aid workers put themselves. All you have to do is read Humanitarian Outcomes’ annual report on aid worker security to get a picture of this. In 2014 alone, 120 aid workers were killed, 88 wounded, and 121 kidnapped.  But what I do want to convey is that the insecurity to which aid workers are exposed is complicated. It’s not as simple as putting a tack on a map and calling a place ‘unsafe’ without asking the questions: Why? For whom? When? And, how can we balance our safety and security in working in insecure environments to make sure that the bravery and humanity of those living in those places is not forgotten?