US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Aid workers risk lives to help others

Online Editor | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
On World Humanitarian Day, we remember the 10 aid workers recently killed in Afghanistan and all the others who risk their lives for others every day.

By Guest Blogger Larissa Fast

Today, August 19, is World Humanitarian Day, a day to remember aid workers around the world who have lost their lives in the course of providing assistance to others and to honor those who promote the humanitarian cause. World Humanitarian Day was established to commemorate the anniversary of the August 19, 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad in which 22 people died, including the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General. Unfortunately stories about the deaths of aid workers around the world make headlines all too often. More than 100 humanitarians died in 2009 alone

Earlier this month, 10 members of a medical team were killed in Afghanistan, including two Afghans. This represents the largest loss of life for aid workers in a single incident in Afghanistan, and one of the most devastating losses globally. The team members all worked for the International Assistance Mission (IAM), a Christian relief and development organization that had been providing medical care to Afghans since the 1960s. Most of the expatriate team members had lived and worked in Afghanistan for several years, and even several decades. The team leader, Tom Little, and his wife raised their children there in the 1970s. He spoke fluent Dari and dedicated much of his professional life to his work in Afghanistan, according to the New York Times

Why the 10 aid workers were killed is less clear. The Taliban asserted responsibility for their deaths claiming they were missionaries and spies, claims the IAM denied. The murders of aid workers, like most homicides, happen for many reasons: greed, revenge, politics. In some cases, aid workers are deliberately targeted for political, economic, or even symbolic reasons. The intentions of the perpetrators are usually unknown and the circumstances behind such incidents are usually complex.

Some reports indicate that Bibles were found among the belongings of the IAM team. But as one of their friends told the New York Times, you don't survive in Afghanistan if you try to convert people. The claim that the 10 were missionaries offers a convenient rallying cry for the Taliban, regardless of the truth of its claims. 

Much in the North American press has focused on the expatriates, the sacrifices they made to go to Afghanistan, and their connections to and love for Afghans and their country. News stories have underlined their faith commitments and emphasized that they were aware of the risks of the work but that their commitment to the work outweighed the risks. Their dedication is commendable.

It is important to remember, though, that the vast majority of aid workers are national staff - Afghans, Sudanese, Filipino, Colombians, and Sri Lankans - and not Americans or Europeans or Canadians. We in North America tend to pay attention to the incidents in which expatriates are killed, paying far less attention to the stories of national staff who lose their lives. Their dedication to help others is no less, and the risks they take are equal and sometimes even greater.

The deaths of these 10 individuals are indeed tragic. In remembering them, we also need to remember the unnamed others, national and international, who risk their lives to help others.


Guest blogger Larissa Fast is an assistant professor of conflict resolution at the Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where she studies violence against aid workers.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.