October 18th, 2010
05:59 PM ET

Death of aid worker in Afghanistan sparks discussion

The October 8 death of Linda Norgrove sparked discussion about aid worker safety in conflict zones.

Editor's note: Since becoming State Department producer in 2000, Elise Labott has covered four secretaries of state and reported from more than 50 countries. Before joining CNN, she covered the United Nations. Follow her on Twitter at @eliselabottcnn.

The death this month of British aid worker Linda Norgrove in Afghanistan and the subsequent discussion about aid worker safety have fueled a row between the United States and nongovernmental organizations about how to deliver aid and do development work in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There has always been some tension in the relationship between the United States and American aid groups that work around the world, often on Washington's behalf. But the tripling of the U.S. civilian presence in the region has pitted aid workers trying to encourage long-term development against U.S. officials hoping to make an immediate impact before the United States begins to withdraw its troops next July.

The U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, known as COIN, includes a robust effort to help rebuild communities secured by the military. That effort is led by provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs. In addition to protecting population centers, the goal is to help the Afghan government gain the confidence of the country's people with aid projects designed to improve their quality of life.

The PRTs usually comprise State Department and USAID officials, as well as technical experts, working within the protection of the military. There are 26 PRTs working in Afghanistan. It's a departure from the typical "face" of aid and how it is delivered.

NGOs have been operating in Afghanistan for more than 30 years with minimal protection from armed security guards. They are not getting security from "deterrence," but rather from the acceptance of the local population, which helps protect them and advises about the security situation.

In areas of Afghanistan still rife with insurgent activity, NGOs lament that the distinction between them and the military is being blurred, hindering their ability to develop critical trust from the community. The United States has generally left decisions about security up to the aid groups. But in some areas, these aid groups simply can't function without security and must work closely with the PRTs.

U.S. officials appreciate the dilemma but are put on the defensive when aid groups that have eschewed protection from PRTs then complain that the United States is not taking adequate measures to protect them.

"These contractors say they can get out there and take greater risks because they know the community and can get around, and that is what they are selling," one official said. "You can't make the horse drink the water."

Even when a local community supports an NGO, there is no guarantee against attack by insurgent groups or criminal gangs. So NGOs now assess whether it's safe to operate - sometimes on a daily basis - based on local intelligence.

NGOs call this a "humanitarian space," where development groups can develop the trust of the local population that will keep them safe as they serve the community. Since militants around the world have declared open season on aid workers, that space is shrinking. NGOs worry that a creeping militarization of aid because of the COIN strategy is further eroding that space.

Last month, CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty and I traveled to Afghanistan, where we spent a week embedded with U.S. PRTs and saw dozens of projects aimed at improving the lives of ordinary Afghans.

We were inspired by what we saw: Afghan women learning painting and carpentry so they could join the workforce; farmers learning how to improve their crops to sell them in Pakistan, India or Dubai.

The U.S. civilians we traveled with proudly told us that these projects were developed with local officials and community leaders, based on the needs of the local people. This was COIN at work.

But U.S. officials acknowledge they are under tremendous pressure to show results by next July, when U.S. troops are scheduled to start withdrawing. And development groups say that while necessary and certainly helpful, the focus on "quick impact" projects puts the U.S.'s COIN strategy at odds with long-term development and risks alienating the very people it's designed to help.

The communities we saw in Wardak, Kunar, Nangahar, Kandahar and Herat provinces were proud of what they were able to accomplish. And they were grateful to the United States for the opportunity.

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