Last November, an aid worker named Steve Dennis filed a claim against his employer for failing to protect him after he was attacked and kidnapped while working at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya in 2012. The Oslo District Court found the Norwegian Refugee Council to be "grossly negligent in regards to the safeguarding of staff." Dennis was awarded $520,000.
The attack happened during NRC Secretary General Elizabeth Rasmussen's visit to Dadaab, according to the case. Before the trip, the NRC's country director and regional security adviser had decided to use an armed escort during the visit. At the last minute, the staff canceled the escort. The idea was to keep the visit low-profile.
The judgment call had deadly consequences. The next day, Somali militants attacked the convoy of three Land Rovers carrying 10 NRC staffers, including Rasmussen and Dennis, while they were leaving one of the camps. The vehicle with Rasmussen got away safely. But one driver was killed and Dennis was shot in the thigh. The six kidnappers took four staffers -– including Dennis — and drove off. They were held hostage for four days; then the NRC asked Kenyan authorities to perform a rescue mission.
The NRC case created "a big ripple effect throughout the aid world," says Basile Pissalidis, the security director for InterAction, a coalition of global anti-poverty NGOs.
"It shows one of the weakest links in the whole security system. We sideline our own protocols," he says, pounding on his desk in his office in Washington, D.C. "We do that a lot as an NGO community — at the end of the day we don't follow them."
The consequences are of growing concern. Over the past few years, there's been a sharp increase in the number of aid workers being targeted for kidnap and ransom. Of all forms of violence that aid workers are subjected to, kidnapping has seen the steepest rise. Between 2002 and 2014, the number of reported kidnappings of aid workers each year quadrupled to 121, says Abby Stoddard, a partner at Humanitarian Outcomes, an independent research group, and the senior program adviser at New York University's Center on International Cooperation.
Attack rates are higher in areas of conflict and political instability. The countries with the greatest risk for kidnapping were Afghanistan, Syria and South Sudan, according to the Aid Worker Security Database.
To operate in this insecure environment, humanitarian groups are developing more detailed plans to keep employees safe.
For many aid groups, that starts with a simple equation. On a piece of notebook paper at his desk, Pissalidis wrote: R = T x I x L. Risk equals threat times impact times likelihood. ("Impact" refers to likely consequences.) He and other security analysts draw from existing data to calculate risk and figure out what measures an aid group should take to mitigate it.
As a tactic, kidnapping has a high rate of return on investment for criminals and terrorist groups, explains Stoddard, who also works on the Database. These groups can get "high ransoms and great visibility for their political messages," she says. And as a form of attack, kidnapping doesn't require heavy weaponry.
The vast majority of victims are staffers from the country of operation, not international staff, according to a 2013 report on the Database. There are more nationals in the field and they're perceived to have more money than the average local inhabitant because they are employed by a global organization.
In this environment, some aid groups have become more cautious about entering countries where violence is spiraling. Indeed, a February 2016 study from Humanitarian Outcomes, which included a sample group of 14 major aid groups including International Rescue Committee, Oxfam and Save the Children, reveals that the aid sector has become more reluctant to take risks. And that means fewer groups are distributing humanitarian aid.
But the study also shows that security in large, global aid NGOs has evolved. In the 1990s, most NGOs had "very basic field security guidelines," says Stoddard — often little more than a Word document. By 2000, as the number of attacks started to increase, NGOs began fleshing out their security manuals and adding detailed training courses to help their field staff assess and mitigate risk.
By 2010, more aid groups were creating specific jobs to coordinate security, says Stoddard. As of 2016, Oxfam and World Vision had positions like global security adviser and Save the Children had a risk manager.
The Aid Worker Security Database exposes some of the aid sector's biggest security blind spots. First, kidnappings generally happen to individuals who change their organization's protocol without rethinking risk, as seen in the NRC case. The lesson learned is clear: stick to the plan — or take the time to figure out whether a risk is worth taking, says Pissalidis.
That means running a risk assessment again, he says, referring to the formula R= T x I x L. "If you want to change your mind mid-course, you have to justify your decision on whatever measure you no longer want to take."
Second, kidnappings have a higher likelihood of taking place when staffers are away from the relative safety of a field office and on the road, says a Humanitarian Outcomes report from 2014. Bob Kitchen, the director of emergency preparedness and response unit at the International Rescue Committee, says the group has adapted accordingly. Depending on the location, IRC staff now flies between towns instead of driving. If they must use roads, they take low-profile vehicles rather than the white four-wheel drives often associated with aid workers.
A Humanitarian Outcomes report from 2013 also suggests that perhaps NGOs do not do a good enough job in getting the local community to accept their presence on the ground. Both Pissalidis and Stoddard agree that this concept, called "safe access," is the most critical.
Five months ago, Kitchen's team negotiated safe access at an IRC project site in Northern Cameroon, where there has been an increasing influence of Boko Haram and risk of aid worker kidnappings.
He shares an example. "We systematically introduced our organization to community elders, youth, women and told them, 'We're here to help you and we're counting on you to keep us safe,' " he says. " 'If you see Boko Haram, tell us. If we get kidnapped, we can't help you.' "
As a last resort, aid groups can cease operations, either permanently or temporarily. Doctors Without Borders, also known as MSF, pulled out of Somalia in 2013 after a "barrage of attacks, including abductions and the killing of 16" of their staff. And in 2015, the World Food Programme suspended food assistance after three aid workers disappeared and another abducted at gunpoint in South Sudan.
For Pissalidis, that's the worst-case scenario. "When you have to stop your programming, it's not just us who suffers," he says. "It's the people who we're serving. They're the reason why we're there."