Threats to nongovernmental organizations engaged on hazardous duties

Experimental visualization of narrower problems

There are three broad categories of threats: (1) threats to personnel, such as assault and rape; (2) threats to property (NGO cash, equipment, vehicles, personal property and relief items), such as burglary or pilferage; and (3) threats directed against property, but which may harm personnel, such as car-jacking.

Threats emanate from three types of causes: (1) Crime/banditry-Actions by persons with malicious, financial or personal motivations (such as robbery) not connected with larger political or military efforts; (2) Direct threats-Actions taken by a belligerent (usually to aid in a political or military effort) for which NGOs are the intended target (such as robbing a food aid convoy); and (3) Indirect threats-Actions taken by a belligerent for which the local population or other belligerents are the intended target, but NGOs are unintentionally affected, such as NGOs hitting a landmine on a road. (This may be called "getting caught in the cross-fire," though gunfire is only one such type of threat).


Because of the very nature of their activity, humanitarian workers have always been, and will always be, exposed to security incidents. In addition, any assaults on their physical integrity - which were considered taboo until recently - are relayed by the media and shock international public opinion. These two factors make humanitarian action an easy and attractive target: attacks on it are virtually devoid of physical risk and can, in the eyes of the perpetrators, have considerable political impact. Humanitarian workers therefore increasingly run the risk of being used as pawns in a political game.

The conflicts of the 1990s have taken place (and continue to do so) in contexts which are much more lacking in structure than before. In the past, when they were far fewer in number, humanitarian agencies had relatively clear points of reference: on the one hand, the regular armed forces, under the control of the political authorities in power; on the other, a guerrilla movement, with a structured chain of command and a well-defined ideology. Both parties to the conflict usually had substantial international support. In most cases, these structures enabled humanitarian agencies to make the contacts required for the conduct of their operations at all levels of the political and military hierarchy. The protection of humanitarian personnel - both expatriate and local - was essentially the responsibility of the parties to the conflict, and they discharged that responsibility not by providing armed escorts but through a system of safe-conducts and authorizations that worked relatively well, precisely because it was based on a strong chain of command.

Problem Type:
E: Emanations of other problems
Date of last update
08.05.2019 – 21:08 CEST