A New Ethics of Professionalism in the Humanitarian Sector: A Review of "Necessary Risks" by Abby Stoddard

In 2009, the United Nations General Assembly formalized the 19th of August as World Humanitarian Day (WHD), in memory of the 19 August 2003 bomb attack on the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, which killed 22 humanitarian workers, including the UN's chief humanitarian in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. On WHD, the world commemorates humanitarian workers killed and injured in the course of their work, and all aid and health workers who continue, despite the odds, to provide life-saving support and protection to people most in need. In commemoration of this year's WHD, the Journal of International Affairs reviews a noteworthy book which captures the learnings from a decade's worth of research in the field of operational security for humanitarian workers.

Pranav Ramkumar
August 19, 2020

Abby Stoddard’s Necessary Risks is a tribute to the humanitarian aid worker. It is the encapsulation of over a decade's worth of Stoddard’s research in the field of humanitarian operational security practice. Stoddard combines qualitative research2-6 (carried out together with her long term research collaborator Adele Harmer), quantitative analysis1 (carried out using the Aid Worker Security Database, a carefully curated database on incidents of violence against humanitarian aid workers) and vivid storytelling (from real life case studies from the field) to present a detailed inquiry into the underlying features of risk and incentives for humanitarians, institutions, and political actors that affect the ability of people in crisis to obtain vital assistance.

The book is structured into six chapters - two that lay the groundwork, two that distil the risks, and two that help set up strategies for reform. The groundwork chapters are dedicated to examining the historical data on violence against aid workers, and to studying the changing modalities of war. By imposing a variety of lenses on the data (such as assault type, insurgency context, type of organization and type of staff) and by studying the provisions within traditional international humanitarian law, Stoddard identifies challenges to humanitarian neutrality and consequently security. The risk chapters seek to analyze how and when it is that aid workers face the greatest risk of violence. Stoddard accomplishes this through studying in-depth the motives of insurgent groups, and the reasons for failure of state apparatus to contain corruption and patronage. The reform chapters are devoted to making strategic recommendations for the future. This is done by first outlining the challenges faced by NGOs and the international organizations in mitigating the security risks by virtue of their size, age or sense of responsibility and then calling for greater advocacy, political will, legal reform and ethical consciousness.

Stoddard’s motivations

It is personal experience that has motivated Stoddard’s decade-long research journey. In January 1997, when serving as Program Director for Médecins du Monde (an international aid organization), Stoddard experienced the loss of three of four members of her organization’s field medical team in an armed raid and shooting by insurgents in Ruhengeri, Rwanda. Apart from the first-hand experiences of her co-worker Nitin Madhav, the sole-survivor of the incident (who continued working in the international aid sector with USAID after the incident), Stoddard has also sought to capture the experiences of several other humanitarian workers who have been victims of attacks by insurgent groups in field offices of international aid organizations. Stoddard’s inquisitions take readers on a visual journey from Baghdad, Iraq, where the headquarters of the United Nations’ humanitarian mission has been bombed (an incident which inspired the Ahtisaari7 report on safety and security of UN personnel), to Basilan, Philippines, where an aid worker of a local NGO has been kidnapped by members of a jihadist organization called the Abu Sayyaf Group, to  Juba, South Sudan to the scenes of journalists caught in the crossfires of armed conflict between government and opposition forces, to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where the security manager of a  Red Cross relief effort is trapped amid hostilities when rebel forces take control of the city, to the western governorate of Idlib, Syria to the site of airstrikes amidst  civil uprising, to Guinea where an emergency doctor on an assignment with the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) finds himself surrounded by infection, death and distress.

Apart from her rich storytelling, Stoddard also stands out as a champion for balanced, scientific thought. In speaking about her quantitative process of commissioning and creating the Aid Worker Security Database and mining the data for insights, Stoddard quotes Galileo Galilei (“measure what is measurable and make measurable what is not so”), Nate Silver (“The numbers have no way of speaking for themselves. We speak for them. We imbue them with meaning [and] may construe them in self-serving ways that are detached from the objective reality.”) and even data critics like Fabrice Weissman (“quantitative analyses can do little more than produce ignorance”). Viewing data as an essential input into the scientific process, but not an end to itself, Stoddard says in her book, “Blaming data is like blaming the hammer for a carpenter’s shoddy work and then insisting that he do the job without it.”

Key findings and recommendations

What are some insights readers will encounter in Stoddard’s book? While motor vehicle accident fatalities in humanitarian aid work are on the descent, death from intentional violence is on the rise, with 2019 being the year on record for the most attacks against humanitarians. Shootings and aerial bombardments pose the greatest threat with landmine detonations not nearly as much of a concern as in the decades past. Every year, a small number of conflict affected countries account for the greatest number of aid worker deaths. International law and international humanitarian law has not been designed for the new type of present day conflict, called “internalized internal” conflicts. Humanitarians define neutrality as an “instrumental principle”, not for its own sake, but as a means to gain the trust of warring parties to get access and do their work. Humanitarian organizations may be targets of violence by insurgents due to their proximity, the opportunity they present to send messages, and their vulnerability of typically being located amongst significantly higher security offices. Insurgent groups can sometimes have very clear expectations of NGOs while doing humanitarian work (E.g. pro-Islam, no female employees, permission of tribal elders and purely philanthropic interests). Donor governments, by taking a hard line on fiduciary controls while not insisting on equally stringent security risk management measures, create conditions where organizations direct more effort and attention to securing their monetary and material assets rather than the safety of their staff members and partners.

What are some recommendations that Stoddard makes for the humanitarian sector? While Western governments should continue to make humanitarian contributions to weak states, their efforts are better spent at resolving the conflicts and crises creating the humanitarian needs, as opposed to focusing on secure humanitarian access. It is the role of the humanitarian actors themselves to self-regulate as members of a profession, as opposed to an altruistic gesture, that works in line with humanitarian principles. With an ethos of professionalism, these individuals and organizations can prioritize the skills and capacities to reduce risks as far as possible, and make informed decisions to accept the risks that remain, when they are necessary to save lives. The minimum standards Stoddard calls for are first, to assess, understand and acknowledge the risk, second, to treat security risk management as an area of expertise and staff it accordingly, third, to implement all appropriate risk mitigating measures using an acceptance based approach, fourth, to explicitly accept the residual risk using program criticality as the guiding principle, fifth, to invest in negotiation skills and capabilities, and sixth to equalize duty of care for national staff and extend it to national partners.


  1. The Aid Worker Security Database: https://aidworkersecurity.org/
  2. Stoddard, A., Harmer, A., & Haver, K. (2006). Providing Aid in Insecure Environments: Trends in policy and operations. London: Overseas Development Institute.
  3. Stoddard, A., Harmer, A., & Hughes, M. (2012). Aid Worker Security Report 2012: Host states and their impact on security for humanitarian operations. Humanitarian Outcomes.
  4. Stoddard, A., Harmer, A., & Czwarno, M. (2017). Aid Worker Security Report 2017. Behind the Attacks: A look at the perpetrators of violence against aid workers. Humanitarian Outcomes.
  5. Hamer, A., Stodard, A. & Sarazen, A. (2018). Humanitarian access in armed conflict: A need for new principles? Humanitarian Outcomes, December
  6. Stoddard, A., Harvey, P., Czwarno, M., and Breckenridge, M. (2019). Aid Worker Security Report 2019, Speakable: Addressing sexual violence and gender-based risk in humanitarian aid. Humanitarian outcomes, June
  7. Ahtisaari, M. et al. (2003). Report of the Independent Panel on the Safety and Security of UN Personnel in Iraq. United Nations
  8. “Necessary Risks” is available via AmazonPalgrave Macmillan and SpringerLink

Abby Stoddard (@AbbyStoddard) serves as Partner at Humanitarian Outcomes, an independent research organization providing evidence and policy advice to inform better humanitarian action. She holds a PhD in International Relations from NYU and is an alumnus of the Master of International Affairs program at Columbia SIPA

Staff writer: Pranav Ramkumar is a Master of Public Administration candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, studying international finance and economic policy.