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A deeper look at the causes of incidents... 

On page 38 of the next issue of Crisis Response Journal, Phil Wood, MBE, Head of the Department of Security and Resilience at Buckinghamshire New University in the UK, says that the disciplines of crisis and disaster response usually deal with real-time issues of emergency consequence. But, he argues, we should look beyond the effects of these crises and scrutinise their possible underlying causes: "You might neither know nor care about the problems that are happening outside your immediate world, but this makes no difference. The effects will come... they are real," he says.

In our news pages, CRJ reports on local volunteer health workers being gunned down while administering polio vaccines under the World Health Organization polio eradication initiative. Nobody has owned up to these crimes, which happened in Nigeria and Pakistan, but fingers have been pointing towards radical religious groups which, in the past, have accused the vaccination programme of being a plot to sterilise or poison children.

Sixty years after the polio vaccine was developed, it is grotesque that children are potentially being condemned to a life-changing and entirely preventable illness through ignorance, cynicism or ideology.

Savage attacks on aid workers have been increasing for several years; their neutrality and altruism both questioned and exploited.

Has their position been aggravated by 'aid instrumentalisation' - the use of humanitarian action or rhetoric as a tool to pursue political, security, development, economic or other non-humanitarian goals? Has such manipulation blurred the boundaries of neutrality?

IRIN reviews a new book, The Golden Fleece, which explores different forms of aid instrumentalisation through the 19th Century to current times, and which concludes that this is nothing new: "There was never a golden age and there has always been instrumentalisation of one kind or another. It is part of human nature to try to take advantage of assistance, be it by aid agencies, donors, warring parties or affected communities."

So, as the book confirms, the manipulation of aid goes back centuries. The erosion of neutrality to the point where we see the deliberate targeting of humanitarian workers is a relatively recent phenomenon (see ICRC Healthcare in Danger campaign)

In late 2012, Luavut Zahid, a journalist in Pakistan, wrote an excellent commentary: "Around May of this year we managed to shut down the entire operation of the Red Cross in the country ... A doctor with the Red Cross was brutally murdered by decapitation, following which over 900 of the Red Cross staff were put on leave, over 80 foreign staffers were shipped off to Islamabad or out of Pakistan.

"At the end of the day, most look at Pakistan and weigh their own jeopardised well-being against those they're trying to help," she continued (Follow her on Twitter: @luavut).

So, apart from the utter human tragedy for the victims, their families and those left vulnerable to a hideous illness, it is clear why these incidents matter to the wider resilience, security and emergency communities.

Such attacks, wherever they occur in the world, aim to create greater instability, to subjugate and terrorise groups which are already vulnerable, breeding fear, pain and hopelessness, spawning hatred and eventually even making some elements of society thirsty for confrontation.

As we have seen, the effects are real and can spread, creating new targets of workers overseas, financial interests, businesses, tourists, cyberspace. This makes it everybody's problem.

Wood's article focuses mainly upon food security and climate change as possible flashpoints, saying that economic and climate issues can destabilise economies and nations. When human needs are not met, or basic human aspirations are thwarted, he says, instability, uncertainty and potential chaos usually ensue.

But the provision of humanitarian assistance and preventive medical treatment are more primal. It could be argued that they provide greater forces for stability. And the amplified consequences of their withdrawal could be even more serious than we imagine.

This comment piece is based on an earlier, abridged version published in Crisis Response Journal (8:3), published February 28, 2013. 

Phil Wood, 26/02/2013
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