May their memory be a blessing

The confirmed killing of two aid workers in a January US drone strike in Pakistan is big news in Washington this morning. Warren Weinstein, 73, lived in this area. Giovanni Lo Porto, 39, was Italian.

Both had been doing the kinds of work many of my students at SAIS aspire to. Weinstein, a former political science professor, was working for a USAID contractor on rural development projects. Lo Porto, who studied peace and conflict issues at London Metropolitan University, was working for a German non-governmental organization on restoring drinking water in a flooded rural area. Experienced operators, they both nevertheless fell victim to kidnappings and ended up in Al Qaeda hands. Weinstein was taken in August 2011 in Lahore. Lo Porto in January 2012.

There was a time when aid workers of this sort might have been left alone by belligerents. No longer. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in particular, but also other “jihadi” groups, have made a thriving business of kidnap and ransom. The Italian government is widely believed to be prepared to deal, even paying substantial ransoms. The American government would like it believed it does not deal and in particular does not pay ransoms. Neither approach yielded the desired result in these two cases.

Kidnapping is not only a business. Increasingly, jihadi groups see aid workers as helping their enemies to establish legitimacy by providing services to the poor. The good works Weinstein and Lo Porto were undertaking might be welcome to the villages where they were undertaken, but not to those who want to undermine and destroy the Pakistani state. Many aid organizations are concerned about this and try to keep all belligerents at more or less equal arm’s length, but that is hard to do when it comes to belligerents who don’t acknowledge anyone as “neutral” or “humanitarian.”

The jihadi presence has caused a vast increase in the protection required to conduct humanitarian operations in today’s war zones, which in turn reduces the credibility of the humanitarian claim and raises your value as a target. If your warehouses, homes and offices all have to be protected 24/7 by armed guards, you start looking like just one more belligerent, or like one more extension of state power. As a non-governmental civilian, this makes me generally more comfortable in a conflict zone outside the envelope of visible security than inside it. Moving from one zone to the other–through checkpoints–is often your most dangerous moment.

Weinstein was reportedly taken in Lahore after his residential guards accepted an offer of a free meal. The circumstances of Lo Porto’s kidnapping are unclear to me. But the point is this: it could happen to any tens of thousands of aid workers in dozens of fragile states around the world. Few nongovernmental organizations can provide a level of physical protection to individuals that will foil a concerted kidnapping attempt by half a dozen toughs. Once taken, a victim in at least a dozen of these countries can be sold on quickly to Al Qaeda or the Islamic State.

The best defense is simply not to be at an expected place at the expected time. But strict adherence to that approach would make work on many development issues impossible. Everyone is working remotely to a greater extent than ever before, but it just isn’t possible to do a good job supervising or implementing aid projects, training people and providing advice without seeing the projects first hand and talking directly with the local implementers and beneficiaries.

It takes real courage and conviction to do what Weinstein and Lo Porto were doing. It should never be confused with careless adventure-seeking by those with no serious business in conflict zones. Nor should we blame for their deaths the drone operators and intelligence analysts who take on the enormous responsibility of trying to prevent collateral damage. It is the kidnappers who were responsible for Weinstein and Lo Porto being in the wrong place at the wrong time, no one else.

The people who do aid work in conflict zones merit our appreciation and support as much as those who serve in uniform. The risks they run and the sacrifices they make are far greater than they should be.

Zichronam Livracha

May their memory be a blessing.

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