Global aid workers walking a tricky tightrope
TRINCOMALEE, Sri Lanka, Aug 9: The brutal murder of 17 Sri Lankan aid workers last week highlights the difficulties faced by relief organisations 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 history.
''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 organisations (NGOs) are biased in favour 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 Centre for Policy Alternatives in the capital, Colombo. ''I think that has percolated down to the army, bureaucrats and officials.'' 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 politicised, 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 programmes 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 trend.
In Sri Lanka, some attribute the rising anti-NGO sentiment to political pressure from hardline Buddhist and Marxist government allies.
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 aid worker.