Are all humanitarian aid workers treated equally in the field?
They are not, according to experts who spoke on March 30 as part of the fourth annual Frontiers of Humanitarianism Conference at the Lincoln Center campus.
The international aid community does not adequately utilize the national aid sector—people who work for humanitarian causes within their own countries, said Abby Stoddard, Ph.D, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
“It does a very poor job of measuring their contributions and including them in strategic planning,” Stoddard said.
She was on a panel as part of the daylong conference, which this year examined “Innovation and Humanitarian Action.”
Those who work for humanitarian organizations within their own country are considered to be on a “national staff.” Stoddard’s research has found that national staffers account for most of the victims of violence against aid workers.
“National workers on the front lines are more exposed to violent threats, yet they often don’t receive access to security resources and training,” she said. “Security training in many agencies is designed with expatriots in mind.”
In measuring the national aid sector, researchers must ask themselves whether they are misjudging its size and capacity, Stoddard said.
There is a need to strengthen ethics and conduct training to reinforce the impartiality and neutrality of national staffs, said Rania Hadra, a policy officer with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).
“Organizations should be encouraged to hire more national professionals from respective regions,” Hadra said.
Such staffers bring many benefits to organizations, including nuanced local knowledge, the ability to speak native languages and dialects, and impartial analysis of emerging situations.
“For example, I know how to dress when going to certain parts of Sudan. I know how not to offend,” she said.
But national staffers often face bias from expatriate staffers, she said.
“There is a perception that as a national staff member, you come with your biases—that you come with your tribe, ethnicity, village or government in mind,” she said.
Sometimes the bias toward national staffers comes from fellow national staffers who hail from other regions of the same country.
“This is a very tricky equation,” Hadra said. “The organization has to be able to balance bias with the incredible insight national staffers bring to the table.”
Hadra also has found that national staff members find themselves in at-risk situations more than other aid workers do.
“In Somalia, for example, where a lot of the humanitarian delivery is administered by local staffs, they bear the brunt of the threats,” she said.
Hadra recalled an instance when her supervisor refused to take her to arms-control areas in Darfur.
“I insisted on going, and ended up building a rapport with the younger commanders. From that day on, they chose me as their contact in the office,” she said. “I use this example because the nature of security analysis for national staffs has to be much more nuanced.”
Connie Robson, senior director of global recruiting at the International Rescue Committee in New York City, said sometimes organizations looking for volunteers will declare their preference for expats as opposed to national aid workers.
“Sometimes, there’s no negotiating that point,” Robson said. “It’s a tough lesson to learn. You’ll come across a young expat supervising a medical doctor with 20 years of experience.”
She admitted that national aid workers can come up against a glass ceiling, but she also suggested the landscape may be shifting.
“Some organizations are implementing exchange programs in which national aid workers are able to fill in as, for example, a finance manager in another country,” she said. “Temporary duty assignments are creating opportunities for national workers to gain experience.”
“Innovation and Humanitarian Action” was part of the Consortium on Security and Humanitarian Action, a joint endeavor of research centers at four New York-area universities, including the Institute for International Humanitarian Affairs at Fordham.