Global aid workers walking a tricky tightrope
By Peter Apps
TRINCOMALEE, Sri Lanka (Reuters) – The brutal murder of 17
Sri Lankan aid workers last week highlights the difficulties
faced by relief organizations around the world trying to
balance helping people with politics.
The massacre, which took place in the northeastern town of
Mutur after days of fighting between troops and Tamil Tiger
rebels, was one of the bloodiest attacks on an aid group in
“This will change how we operate, who we help and how we do
it,” said one aid worker in Trincomalee, aid hub both for the
conflict area and also for a swathe of the island’s east coast
hit by the 2004 tsunami.
In the last few days, aid crews have found access to the
area limited by angry mobs, mainly from the island’s ethnic
Sinhalese majority, who say non-governmental organizations
(NGOs) are biased in favor of minority Tamils and the rebels.
“Ever since this government got into power, it has whipped
up anti-NGO feeling,” said Rohan Edrisinha, analyst at the
Center for Policy Alternatives in the capital, Colombo. “I
think that has percolated down to the army, bureaucrats and
It is not only in Sri Lanka that aid workers are under
fire. In Sudan’s Darfur region, aid agencies say July was the
worst month on record with eight Sudanese staff killed and
access restricted by violence and intimidation.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, aid staff say western agencies are
often seen as simply an extension of the United States military
and its allies.
In Zimbabwe, aid agencies continually have to lobby the
government simply to remain — and so barely dare talk about
their conditions, food shortages or abuse.
Some have ceased work all together.
“When aid gets politicized, you have to negotiate simply to
have the space in which to operate,” said one Trincomalee-based
aid worker who also worked in Africa. “That makes things much
more difficult. It can also make it more dangerous.”
With governments increasingly moving into the aid sphere,
and relief programs more involved in trying to engineer
long-term social change that can involve contact with rebel
groups rather than simply handing out food, it seems a growing
In Sri Lanka, some attribute the rising anti-NGO sentiment
to political pressure from hardline Buddhist and Marxist
With rebuilding after the 2004 tsunami slower than many
hoped, aid workers and officials also blame each other.
“Here, problems seem to have been exacerbated by the fact
that some foreign governments want to work through the NGOs
rather than the government,” said Edrisinha.
The government says it will launch a proper investigation
into the killing of the 17 staffers from the aid group Action
Contre La Faim, but family members and increasing numbers of
aid workers say it already appears likely that government
troops were responsible.
All but one of the victims were Tamils, trapped in a
majority Muslim town.
With a large number of victims of both the tsunami and the
two-decade civil war being Tamils, aid workers say with
hindsight that they probably did not do enough to win over
hearts and minds of Sinhalese and Muslim residents — although
with thousands of Muslims now displaced by the current crisis,
they are trying hard.
“They see our white vehicles go through their village
almost every day and they see us give them nothing,” said one