Violence against NGOs: The motives

In 2013, 461 aid workers were attacked, setting the recorded as the most violent year against humanitarian staff.  The 1949 Geneva Conventions and related 1977 Protocols I and II provide a legal safeguard to prevent violence against NGOs. Yet as the number of international aid workers has tripled since 2000, the number of attacks against NGO aid workers has also increased.

The question is why, in particular contexts, does violence against NGOs occur? This piece will seek to explain the motives for which non-governmental organisations are targeted in order to better understand the reasons why NGOs, in cases such as the Central African Republic and Syria, have not been able to function to their full potential in response to humanitarian crises.

Assessing Motive

Identifying and assessing the reasons behind attacks against NGO infrastructure and/or aid workers is a difficult task. Whilst attacks against NGOs in conflict areas have been recorded, studies on the motives behind them have been scarce. The reasons for this are several.

First, motive cannot be assessed through quantitative data as can the number of attacks, deaths, or injuries. It is, therefore, harder to identify, once an attack has been recorded, the reasons for its occurrence. Second, it is impossible to retrieve all the reasons for a particular attack since there is often a multiplicity of factors at play for every specific assault against NGO infrastructure and/or aid workers. Also, since each attack is unique, violence is often the result of the unique sociopolitical contexts of the conflict in which the attack has occurred, which are often extremely complex.

Finally, the difficulty to assess motive stems from the struggle to determine the identity of the perpetrators of an attack. In many cases, since perpetrators remain either unknown or hard to access, the motives for a particular attack is almost impossible to establish. Thus, without empirical data, statements about the motives behind attacks against NGOs cannot be made, even less so when the perpetrators of such assaults are unidentified.

Violence Against NGOs

Differences in context, objectives, and the nature of the conflict have resulted in attacks against NGOs for a variety of reasons.

Economically motivated attacks occur when humanitarian aid supplies destined for a particular group of people or area within a conflict-torn country are robbed in order to supply, clothe, or feed a specific faction in lack of supplies. Indeed, the seizing of goods for the attackers’ own use is driven by an economic objective: that of providing those not destined for the use of humanitarian supplies with resources.

Politically motivated actions against non-governmental organizations vary more widely and can take on several forms. Mainly, but not exclusively, political motivations driving violence against NGOs are: to prevent the access of aid to enemy civilians, to reassert control over a region by driving out humanitarian organisations, to send a political message to a particular government, faction, or more generally the international community.

Although differentiated, motives based on either political or economic motivations often overlap. While the attacking or robbery of humanitarian supplies is economically driven, the results of such attacks are political since supplies acquired bring direct support to combatants within a given conflict. Seized goods such as food, clothing, electronics, vehicles, money, and general equipment may be used to fund arms purchases to continue fighting. In this way, economically motivated attacks serve political and military interests.

The politicisation of aid

Politically motivated attacks against humanitarian organisations increased by 208 percent over a 9-year period between 1997 and 2005. One of the reasons explaining this is the fact that humanitarian organisations are becoming more politicized, meaning they have become political and strategic targets for more and more combatants.

In Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace—Or War, Mary Anderson argues that humanitarian organisations rarely remain neutral when engaged on the ground despite the fact that neutrality is constantly emphasized in organisation mandates. Indeed, the erosion of the perception of neutrality and independence of NGOs clashes with the fundamental principles of NGOs’ work: neutrality and impartiality.

Although the politicisation of humanitarian organisations may have been an unintentional negative impact of humanitarian aid, (and against the fundamental principals of NGOs), it has resulted in NGOs becoming strategic targets in modern-day conflicts. For Anderson, the simple presence of a humanitarian organisation in a war zone makes it partisan to the conflict. In other words: ‘When international assistance is given in the context of a violent conflict it becomes a part of that context and thus also of the conflict.’

The result of this is increasing legitimised violence against NGO infrastructure and aid workers since humanitarian organisations have been integrated as a military target in the eyes of certain factions. In Syria, for example, humanitarian organisations are attacked since they are considered supporters of rebels by government factions.

Motives applied: trends and differences

The Central African Republic

The question of motive is fundamental for the effectiveness of humanitarian assistance. In the Central African Republic, ‘insecurity still represents a major roadblock to the provision of aid in this crisis-rocked country, where the humanitarian needs are enormous’.

Since the beginning of the CAR crisis in 2013, when Seleka rebels successfully operated a coup d’état against President Francois Bozize’s authoritarian regime, NGOs operating in the Central African Republic have been repeatedly attacked. In 2014, humanitarian presence in CAR reached the top five worldwide contexts with most attacks on aid workers recorded. In 2016, humanitarian aid workers in the Central African Republic were involved in more than 365 security incidents — more than Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Mercy Corps says the ‘CAR is (…) one of the world’s most dangerous countries for aid workers, making attempts at humanitarian aid even more difficult in an already challenging situation’.

AP Photo/Andrew Medichini. Police patrols outside as Pope Francis celebrates mass in the Barthelemy Boganda Stadium, in Bangui.

Insecurity remains a major operational constraint for NGOs in the CAR with no signs of improvement. The question is why? The socio-political context of the crisis is extremely complex, and so, therefore, are the reasons behind directed attacks on NGOs. Political and economic motivations both explain the persisting insecurity of humanitarian presence in the Central African Republic.

In December 2016, the Doctors Without Borders compound in Bambari was robbed twice. The perpetrators of the robberies have remained unidentified, making the motives for the attack impossible to define. However, it may be suggested that it was either out of a need for basic necessities or a deliberate intention to deprive the population in Bambari of humanitarian aid that the assaults took place.

Jessica Moody, political risk analyst at Jane’s (global open-source intelligence provider), says ‘the extent of the crisis means that so much of the country is dependent on humanitarian aid, which in turn means that the rebels who can get control of NGO supplies are best-placed to win the conflict. There is no way out of the politicisation of that situation.’

Indeed, from December 2013-2014, the most common method of attack was directed against vehicles transporting food. The targeting of NGO transports may most probably have been to provide food for another faction not initially destined for humanitarian aid, in this way supporting rebel fighting.

Politically motivated attacks against NGOs in the CAR have also taken place. In February 2014, an international NGO team was threatened by anti-Balaka militias (rebel faction comprising of Christians created in response to the Seleka rebel faction) and forced to stop distribution of non-food items to Muslim IDPs in the town of Boda. This attack was clearly politically motivated since one faction, the anti-Balaka, intentionally attacked an NGO in order to deliberately deprive the population of essential goods. The attack can also be seen as a demonstration of power; by impeding the access of humanitarian aid to ‘opponents’, the anti-Balaka claim symbolic control and power over its enemy faction. Several other attacks of this nature have occurred in the CAR.

AP/Jerome Delay. A woman runs for cover as heavy gunfire erupts in the Miskin district of Bangui, Central African Republic.

The difficult question for NGOs to ask themselves, according to Jessica Moody, is ‘whether humanitarian assistance in the CAR is not just extending the lifeline of the conflict. It is very easy to see how the group of people who are feeding your enemy become your enemy as well.’

NGOs have had to reduce or shut down operations in the CAR yet not entirely due to an increase in attacks against humanitarian aid workers and infrastructure. The main reason for limited operations in the CAR is underfunding, which forced humanitarian agencies to withdraw from CAR in 2016. Doctors without Borders, however, is maintaining its presence and running 17 projects across the country.


Non-governmental organisations operating in Syria since the beginning of the crisis in 2011 have faced similar assaults over the past years. In fact, humanitarian assistance brought by multiple international organisations has repeatedly been blocked by the parties to the conflict. Same as in the CAR, obstruction of humanitarian aid has made it difficult for NGOs to aid populations in need amidst an already challenging situation. Added to violence against NGOs is the increased underfunding of UN appeals, ‘every single year since the start of the crisis’.

While perpetrators of violence against NGOs are often difficult to identify, the Syrian State has been blamed for continued involvement in the obstruction of humanitarian assistance. This allows for a clearer understanding of the motives behind NGO targeting.

violence against NGOs

Countless attacks against humanitarian aid convoys have been recorded over the past several years. Those that affected a significantly high number of people were the assaults of convoys in September 2016 and June 2017. On 19th September 2016, 18 trucks on their way to Aleppo were destroyed, affecting 78,000 people in need of food and medical supplies. On 17th June 2017, 37 trucks were attacked, affecting 11,000 people of East Harasta also needing food and medical supplies. These attacks are political in their nature since NGOs were targeted in order to deliberately deprive entire populations of aid.

NGO infrastructure in Syria has also been targeted repeatedly, although in most cases these episodes have been seen as collateral damage to airstrikes. Hundreds of attacks on medical centres across the country in the past five years have taken place. Physicians for Human Rights has recorded nearly 400 attacks on 269 different hospitals since the war in Syria began, 90% of them by the government and its allies.

It is hard to believe, therefore, that the destruction of hundreds of hospitals and humanitarian facilities has been entirely unintentional. The damage of humanitarian facilities, whether seen as military targets or collateral damage, has undermined the work of international organisations, sending a clear message of contempt towards NGO work and missions. The destruction of entire humanitarian compounds and facilities have made humanitarian assistance a near-impossible task in certain areas.

As the above examples suggest, NGOs in crisis-torn countries risk being caught in the crossfire of national conflicts. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, non-governmental organisations operating in high-risk areas become involved in the dynamics of war. In the case of Syria, the blocking of NGO passage/work in government-controlled areas and the destruction of medical facilities have become tactics of war, rendering NGOs none other than war targets. In this sense, humanitarian become part of the dynamic of the war in which they operate. In the CAR, the targeting of NGOs is in many ways a demonstration of power in the eyes of either the anti-Balaka or Seleka rebels, whose internal fighting for land ownership and natural resources has become an endless chess game of strategic advantages.

It is important to note that violence against NGOs does not reduce itself to conflicts in the CAR and in Syria. Attacks against NGOs generally occur wherever humanitarian organisations operate. Another historical example in which NGOs have been targeted intentionally is in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Indeed, the Taliban posed an obstacle to the delivering of humanitarian assistance during the war in Afghanistan by intentionally impeding the relief of civilian populations.

What has been done and what could be done?

Tackling the issue of violence against NGOs is essential for the future effectiveness of non-governmental organisations’ work in crisis-torn countries. Yet the difficulty to respond to increasing attacks against NGO aid workers and infrastructure stems from the difficulty to assess motive. Identifying and understanding motive is, therefore, one of the primary concerns for NGOs today.

Several policies and security measures have already been implemented in an attempt to counter attacks against NGOs and increase the protection of aid workers in the field. These have followed three general approaches to field staff safety: protection, deterrence, and acceptance.

Protection and deterrence activities do not address the motives behind attacks on NGO aid workers but rather focus on short-term strategies to counter violence. Common protection strategies to reduce staff vulnerabilities include armoured cars and convoys, the use of body armour and helmets, housing international staff in securitised compounds.

Deterrence strategies equally seek to respond to immediate security threats. However, strategies of deterrence employ counter-threats in order to deter possible attackers. These include: hiring either local or foreign armed guards to patrol organization property, protecting the houses in which foreign staff members reside, providing security to staff travelling in NGO vehicles.

Neither protection nor deterrence strategies represent a long-term solution to the issue of violence against NGOs.

The third approach of existing measures implemented to counter violence against NGOs is the ‘acceptance’ approach. Acceptance activities seek to reduce NGO staff vulnerability by increasing local acceptance of the work NGOs do, the organisation employees represent, and employees themselves. Strategies include image management, raising awareness of the economic, political, and socio-cultural contexts of the areas in which NGOs operate, and building relationships with local leaders and communities. The ‘acceptance’ strategy, unlike protection and deterrence, rightly addresses the complexity of motives for aid worker targeting.

Despite these implemented procedures, strategies, and policies, the number of attacks on humanitarian aid workers continues to rise. Most certainly, staff vulnerability cannot be eradicated entirely since every war zone will present NGOs with a certain degree of risk. However, a more in-depth understanding of the motives behind the targeting of NGO aid workers and infrastructure would most certainly lead to more acute and long-term protection strategies.

First, it is essential that information about attacks on aid workers, their contexts, and motives be shared amongst non-governmental organisations. Although some trends in humanitarian aid insecurity have been established, a more systematic collection of data in regards to NGO attacks would enable a more thorough understanding of the common motives driving them.

Equally important, however, is NGOs’ individual understanding of the socio-cultural, economic, and political contexts in regions in which they have chosen to operate. This would allow for NGOs prior to their missions to use knowledge of particular war contexts to identify the possible motives for targeting aid workers. Indeed, since each war-torn region holds unique contexts, it is vital for NGOs to gain in-depth knowledge of the situations in which they are inserting themselves.

Finally, initiatives previously mentioned the need to go further in order to tackle the issue of violence against NGOs in the long-term. Specifically, an increase in the focus of acceptance strategies could provide for a more long-term security to aid workers. This could be done by NGOs maintaining awareness of how they are perceived in the areas in which they operate and establishing connections with local actors so as to increase transparency in terms of the programmes and missions they are carrying out.


Each attack targeting NGO aid workers or infrastructure is unique and results from a unique interplay of political, economic, and socio-cultural contexts. Therefore, a thorough understanding of the political and economic situation of a country in which aid agencies operate is needed in order to identify the individual reasons for violence against NGOs in that particular context.

However, the sharing of information between NGOs in regards to violence experienced can provide for an in-depth understanding of the general motives behind NGO targeting, providing effective common approaches to tackle this on-going issue.

Understanding the motive for violence against NGOs is the best chance of securing the effectiveness of NGO’s work both now and in the future.

Emma Bapt is the Founder and President of the News Decoder Society at King’s College London, a student in War Studies and History and a contributing writer for PGW.


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