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Aid Workers

Volume 707: debated on Tuesday 27 January 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what protection they are giving to British aid workers in conflict zones.

My Lords, we take the safety of British aid workers very seriously. The Department for International Development has revised and updated its security policy to ensure maximum protection of staff in conflict zones, in particular, but also in all overseas locations. We also support non-government partners in similar precautions. So we hope that non-government and non-British aid workers will also benefit from better security in the face of increasingly numerous and callous attacks.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his Answer. I have asked this Question several times before but never received such a satisfactory Answer. This time, however, the situation is very different, as DfID’s budget is set to increase by 11 per cent a year, to £7.9 billion in 2010-11, according to the 2007 Pre-Budget Report and Comprehensive Spending Review. Will this increase still happen, and what percentage of this enormous but well-deserved amount will be put towards protecting the security of aid workers who are providing help and humanitarian assistance in areas of strife?

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on her birthday and on once again asking me a question that I have not the slightest chance of answering. I have every confidence that the figures in the Pre-Budget Report will be committed to and I am delighted that the opposition parties are aligning with them. On the protection of aid workers, which I think is what the noble Baroness is getting at, I should point out that we have three kinds of aid workers: DfID employees, funded NGOs and non-funded NGOs. On the funded NGOs, we now require anyone we are funding to have in place a proper security plan that is of the same standard as those for our own staff, and we expect them to include in their budget sufficient moneys to cover that security support. We have a legal responsibility for our own staff and we accept a moral and financial responsibility for those aid workers who work for us.

My Lords, does the noble Lord nevertheless agree that aid workers working in Afghanistan feel very strongly about this issue? They feel that aid workers should keep their distance from soldiers, mainly because of the obvious consequences for the local population with whom they are working.

My Lords, I can give a general answer but will write to the noble Earl on the specifics of Afghanistan because it has its own peculiar security problems. As a generality, we see a division among aid workers who are not DfID employees. Some aid workers are working for us by virtue of our grant, but we also respect those who work for organisations which choose to distance themselves from Her Majesty’s Government because they believe that that is a more effective way of working. We do not support them because they do not want us to support them. However, we include them in systems of information, guidance and advice. We recognise that many of those organisations do an excellent job.

My Lords, further to that question, does the Minister recognise that there is a conflict between carrying out the duty of care—for DfID employees, for instance—and moving them in straight after a conflict in a place like Musa Qala has finished? The need is to get them in fast if the opportunities won by the soldiers are not to be lost. The United States has tackled this problem by setting up a special unit of volunteers who are prepared to move in even when the circumstances are dangerous. That is far better than what we are doing. Is DfID thinking about such a proposition?

My Lords, the DfID approach is one of proportionality. We do not have an absolute sense that aid workers have to be as secure as someone working in the United Kingdom—we take risks that are proportional to the value they are adding. In that sense, we are working towards going down the same road as the US. In a dangerous environment we will be working with volunteers. We have a stabilisation unit which is assembling skilled people and our target is to have 1,000 people on the register who have various skills and can move into particular humanitarian situations. I am not sure that that follows the US model exactly but it is trying to be proportionate in terms of the safety of the individuals and the value they add. It is right to point out, as the noble Lord’s question did, that it is frequently in areas of conflict that we have to move in quickly to stabilise the situation because conflict is so much a part of poverty in many parts of the world.

My Lords, I declare an interest in the sense that a member of my family has just returned from Darfur and has been discussing the issue with me at the weekend. The problem for aid workers, particularly those from charities, is that they are people with a wide range of nationalities who are working in difficult areas, and we need to ensure that good evacuation procedures are available if the situation gets worse. That is an obvious shared interest and responsibility for the Governments concerned. How closely are the British Government working with other members of the European Union, the African Union and other international organisations to ensure that evacuation procedures can be put in place quickly?

My Lords, I entirely accept that a response requires full consideration of evacuation and constant information to ensure that the organisation organising the aid has appropriate sensitivity, knows when the situation is changing and is able to make a rapid response. My understanding—I will write to the noble Lord on this—is that Darfur is substantially a UN-organised aid thrust. The UK has great respect for that effort. We have employees working out there and they have been integrated into that effort, and of course we also have volunteers there. We are satisfied that in every respect the UN plans meet the standards of safety that we expect for our people. As ever, though, that must be proportionate to the risks they have to take to provide the benefit.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I was in Sri Lanka four days ago? There are estimated to be around 100,000 Tamils in the Vanni region. Does DfID have contingency plans to ensure that the organisations it funds are ready to move into the Vanni once the Tamil Tigers have been defeated?

My Lords, I hate to share with the noble Lord the fact that I was not aware of where he was two or three days ago. I do not know whether DfID has specific plans for Sri Lanka in those circumstances, but I shall write to him.