The SAVE project is the first major effort to measure the impact of conflict on humanitarian aid. The results show clearly that security and ease of access often determine who gets access to critical aid, and who doesn't.
In a small number of humanitarian emergencies, violence against aid workers is a prevalent threat.
4 conflict settings alone account for over 60% of all major attacks on civilian aid operations: Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan and Somalia.
More than 1,000 aid workers have been victims of direct or collateral violence in those 4 countries since 2011 – wounded, kidnapped, or murdered.
Over 300 lost their lives.
What is it about their conditions that make delivering aid so difficult?
In general, aid agencies respond in smaller numbers to conflict-related emergencies in violent locations than they do to natural disasters in peaceful locations.
Among hundreds of international humanitarian organisations across the world, only a small fraction regularly respond to the most violent, conflict-driven emergencies.
Aid organisations responding in countries with high number of attacks
Aid organisations responding in countries with no attacks
In places where there is no threat of violence, aid organisations typically locate their project sites and staff in the places where the most critical needs are. In extremely insecure environments like Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria, aid groups have had to change their ways of working in order to cope with insecurity.
The conflict dynamics in each of these countries are different, resulting in different challenges for humanitarian operations. Hover on a country to learn more
In Afghanistan, the Taliban re-emerged as a significant insurgent force a few years after the US-led invasion in 2001, and began to gain ground, particularly in the south.
Other non-state armed groups such as the Haqqani network also stepped up attacks.
The outbreak of civil war in South Sudan in late 2013 led to intense fighting and atrocities committed against civilians in the Greater Upper Nile states of the north. Battle lines and outbreaks of fighting have been fluid and unpredictable. Attacks on aid workers have been largely ethnically motivated, affecting national staff.
From the onset of the Syrian civil war in late 2011 through 2014, areas of control emerged: the Assad government controlling much of the south and west; Kurdish forces in the north; various rebel groups holding scattered small territories; and the Islamic State (IS) controlling much of the west and central areas, centred in Raqqa.
South Central Somalia has been one of the most dangerous places for aid work since the early 1990s. Today, the forces of Al Shabaab are waging a guerrilla campaign against the Western-backed national authority in Mogadishu.
Aid organisations are at times caught in the cross-fire, as well as directly targeted for violence.
What patterns are we seeing? This will help us better understand WHY aid is not getting to the people who need it the most.
Aid organisations are doing what they can to reach people in need without risking the lives of their staff. However, the data collected by SAVE field researchers over the course of two years studying aid operations in the four countries reveal concerning patterns:
The first is that security and ease of access determine how much aid reaches a particular population more than any other factor. The more violence there is in a conflict zone, over time the fewer the aid projects that run there - even though the need for them may be many times greater.
When aid agencies are limited to mobile deliveries or to remote management, low-profile, or localised programming, they are less able to offer technically complex programming or to identify and target the most vulnerable people within a population.
While some humanitarian organisations remain operational in active conflict (often at significant risk), many overstate their presence and impact. Incentives to demonstrate presence to donors can obscure the reality that their access and capacities on the ground are severely limited. Sadly, this can undermine advocacy for victims of these conflicts, by inadvertently making the humanitarian situation appear better than it is.
Humanitarian coverage patterns are also politically skewed in some contexts, with more aid going to areas in control of the government or Western-backed warring parties.
As security conditions have worsened in Afghanistan, aid organisations have clustered increasingly in more stable areas where there are fewer displaced victims of the conflict, and less severe need.
In the most insecure provinces of Afghanistan, many aid groups have gone low profile and highly localised with their programming. This means that everyone working on an aid project is hired from the immediate vicinity, senior managers will rarely visit, and all organisational identification and branding is removed. One problem with this way of working is that it keeps aid groups confined to the areas where they are established and feel they can operate securely, and discourages rapid response if a new disaster or greater needs should arise elsewhere.
In South Central Somalia, most aid programming occurs through international organisations subcontracting Somali partner organisations. Many of these international NGOs are based in Nairobi, Kenya, with minimal presence inside the country. Some international organisations have deployed staff to South Central Somalia, but they are mainly confined to the capital city, Mogadishu, or other regional ‘hubs’ and their movements are limited.
Humanitarian coverage is markedly lower in the Shabaab-controlled areas, particularly their stronghold, Middle Juba, and in Lower Shabelle. Aid organisations are discouraged from operating in these areas not only by the threat of violence, but also by the risk of running afoul of the counter-terrorist legal and financial regulations of donor governments.
When fighting broke out in South Sudan, aid groups evacuated from their project sites in Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei and a large number have not been able to re-establish a sustained presence in those areas due to the threat of continued fighting and insecurity, which impinges on their operations. Instead they have relied on ‘rapid response’ deliveries via air lifts, or other means. Aid ‘drops’ of this type are considered the least optimal means of humanitarian response because it is difficult to target those most in need and ensure they get adequate supplies.
Syria has suffered the greatest violence and the sparsest humanitarian coverage of all four countries.
The Assad government has influence over where and how aid is delivered by the aid groups working 'officially' inside Syria. This has hindered impartial humanitarian delivery by the aid groups officially registered to work in the country from bases in Damascus.
The majority of humanitarian organisations responding to needs in Syria are doing so from bases in Turkey, including international NGOs and Syrian diaspora groups. They send aid materials across the border and remotely manage projects. Some work only through Syrian local partners, others maintain small staff presences inside the country.