The deaths of five Afghan staff from Save the Children-Australia in Uruzgan province two weeks ago exemplifies the risks of providing development assistance in fragile states.

Development assistance in conflict situations has drastically increased over the past decade, and that trend is likely to continue. The reason? As Oxford economist Paul Collier (and others) note, conflict is 'development in reverse', and aid is needed to bring fragile countries out of conflict. The catch-22 is obvious for development actors: development needs are greatest in insecure settings.

This has resulted in UN Security Council Resolution 1894, which re-emphasies the importance of upholding the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence in humanitarian and development assistance.

Though most NGOs, including Save the Children, would argue that they are working within these principles, there is intense debate in Afghanistan over whether this is actually true for development actors writ large. Save the Children says on its website that 'the Children of Uruzgan program is a partnership of Save the Children, local NGOs, AusAID and the Government of Afghanistan.' Collaborative approaches are laudable in development assistance, but they are complicated if one or more partners of said collaboration are parties to a conflict, which is true of both the Afghan and Australian governments in this case. 

Neutrality demands that humanitarian and development actors do not 'take sides in hostilities.' Working as part of a state-building project in support of a government that is a party to the conflict, even with the best possible intentions, impacts on the neutrality of development actors. There is also the question of operational independence 'from the political, economic, military or other objectives' if a project is in support of a national government aimed at providing services that could increase its legitimacy.

The loss of neutrality can lead to risk and Save the Children was aware of this risk, especially to local staff, as is clear from its 2012 report on remote monitoring called Access Restricted (my emphasis):

National staff and volunteers interviewed as part of this research gave varying assessments of the implications that working for an NGO had on their own personal security. Some explained that they were supported by beneficiary communities, that it was widely known that they were working for 'the poor and needy' and not for the government, and that they therefore did not face any problems. But other staff felt that working for an NGO put them at risk of being targeted by the insurgents. 

The report goes on to highlight the case of one staff member who had received Taliban threats to resign from his NGO job or be 'kidnapped or killed.' Asked why he continued to do his job in the face of this threat, he replied, 'There isn't any other job, there are only jobs with government agencies or with NGOs, and without a job there's no money for family expenses.' The danger for local staff was also highlighted in a follow-up report in 2014, though in this report working with an NGO was deemed less risky than working for the Afghan Government.

At what point is this risk proportional, and when should NGOs stop operating (as Save the Children has now done after five of its staff were killed)? These debates are ongoing in the aid community, but meanwhile there are some areas where Save the Children might have reduced the risk to its staff by heeding to a conflict-sensitive approach (which it argues it applies) across the board. 

Save the Children has not been shy in showcasing its work, including staff that worked for them. In their Children of Uruzgan project website, you can find many stories, and videos, of their successes. Though publicity is seen as a form of transparency, it is also a vehicle to attract future funding. Should this, however, come at the risk of local staff? Some of the staff killed did indeed feature in a video, a fact acknowledged by Save the Children in its announcement about their deaths. 

Having worked with NGOs in Afghanistan since 2002, I know they are increasingly hesitant to include anything on their websites or publications that could lead to the identification of staff, as they understand that working for an NGO has put Afghans on target lists. Possibly, Save the Children should consider balancing its need for publicly with the security of its staff.

Save the Children has, again for transparency reasons, noted clearly on its website the size of its program – an AusAid grant totaling $36 million. This is a substantial sum, even if divided over four years, and in fact it was openly discussed in Uruzgan province (and Kabul) when it was first awarded. It's hard to keep a low profile for such big programs, especially if there is a need to brand them with your logo.

Much of the kidnapping in Afghanistan is financially motivated. Although it is unclear if financial demands were made with the Save the Children staff (media reporting suggests a prisoner-exchange was requested), there is ample evidence that engagement between NGOs and the Taliban insurgency is increasingly a financial one and thus any knowledge about the scale of NGO programs provides temptation for extortion.

The question for the Australian Government is if it should model itself after other assistance programs that provide smaller and less visible assistance to a variety of NGOs, including local groups. This is what the Dutch Government did in Uruzgan before Australia took the lead. 

The killing of the five Save the Children Staff appeared only briefly in the Australian media and was not openly discussed or addressed (it was acknowledged on a blog by Save the Children-UK, Save the Children-Australia's Facebook page and on Twitter, but not on the Children of Uruzgan website, which has not been shy to showcase success stories). Though the deaths were denounced by the UN in Afghanistan and the Australian Council for International Development, the Australian Government has been silent. 

Why?

Do the lives of Afghan aid workers not matter? Do we no longer care about what happens in Afghanistan? Are we in the West not willing to discuss how international actors focus their attention on insecure areas? How about the issue of international NGOs like Save the Children reducing the risk to international staff by relying on local organisations, which in turn increases their risk?

All these questions are eloquently outlined by Masood Karokhail from The Liaison Office in Afghanistan, an organisation I helped co-found and still advise, in his address to the UN Security Council on World Humanitarian Day. It is well worth to listen or read. 

I want to echo the question he raises at the end: is the international community doing enough to protect the lives of local aid workers – who disproportionately bear the risk – and what do we deem to be 'acceptable risks' for local staff in our quest to deliver assistance in volatile circumstances? And who in the end gets to decide how assistance should be delivered?