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Department of Political and Social Sciences

Humanitarians under Attack

Every year, about 30 researchers defend their PhD theses in the SPS Department. In order to illustrate the range of their research, each month the department selects and presents a dissertation notable for both its exceptionally high quality and general interest to the public.

29 November 2022 | Research

2022.11 melanie-sauter-thesis of the month

Humanitarian organisations are increasingly confronted with violence against their staff. Although most attacks occur in conflict zones and are carried out by armed groups, non-conflict countries are also affected, and civilians are frequently perpetrators.

In Humanitarians under Attack, Melanie Sauter examines the politicisation of humanitarian aid and the motives for attacks on humanitarian aid workers. Given that humanitarian organisations are providing life-saving aid to civilians in need, what explains attacks on humanitarians? To answer this question, Sauter draws on theories from conflict research, research on political violence in general, and research on organisational theories.

The prevailing view in the humanitarian community is that all security is local. Sauter’s dissertation shows the limitations of the localisation argument. Aid agencies' strategies alone have a limited impact on the safety of humanitarian workers. Rather, their security depends on the behaviour or presence of other actors such as governments or peacekeepers.

Sauter argues that two sets of structural factors – political dynamics and the conditions of the aid system – play a crucial role in the politicisation of humanitarian aid. She evaluates this novel framework in four empirical chapters that combine causal modeling of spatial conflict event data with qualitative methods, such as process tracing and fieldwork interviews.

A case study on the Democratic Republic of the Congo examines violence against Ebola responders, which was primarily perpetrated by civilians. Using process tracing, Sauter reconstructs key events that led to the violent resistance of the population. Contrary to popular belief, a lack of aid localisation was not the primary cause. When the population began to see Ebola as a political tool of the government, the violence erupted. An interrupted time-series model then shows that excluding opposition areas from voting in the presidential election led to a significant increase in attacks on Ebola responders.

A second case study on Mali demonstrates how aid workers were associated with peacekeepers. Peacekeeping stabilisation activities limit humanitarian access because the lines between military and humanitarian actors are blurring. Interviews with humanitarians and peacekeepers in Mali illustrate how this undermines coordination between the two actors.

Sauter's thesis concludes that most attacks on aid workers are not random acts of violence, but rather follow a strategic logic. In both cases, humanitarians were feared because they were perceived as politically motivated actors who secretly wanted to help the enemy. Trying to uphold humanitarian principles can cause organisations to lose sight of local political realities. While neutrality and impartiality ensure cooperation with both the government and armed groups, they can also lead to aid workers being associated with one or the other.

Read Melanie Sauter's thesis in Cadmus.

Melanie Sauter defended her dissertation on 6 September 2022 at the EUI. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oslo, where she works on an ERC project looking at how communities remain resilient in protracted conflicts. Her research has been published in the International Studies QuarterlyInternational Peacekeeping and is forthcoming in the Journal of Peace Research. Furthermore, she is currently working on a book manuscript based on her dissertation.

Last update: 02 December 2022

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