Human Commodities

Late last week it was reported that two European aid workers had been freed in Haiti.  The women, who were working for Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), were taken in the Port au Prince suburb of Petionville.  Michel Peremans, a spokesman for MSF, said the news had been kept secret until now so as not to “complicate” negotiations to free the women, whose lives had been “in danger”.

“We confirm that there was a kidnapping,” he said on March 11. The two women “were freed today”.

These were the first reported kidnappings to take place in Haiti since the January 12 earthquake, so one doesn’t want to make too much of it.  Still, the incident does serve to remind us of the very real risks people take working in relief and development situations.  Interaction, an American umbrella organisation for aid agencies, reports haiti aidthat 122 aid workers were killed in 2008 alone.  Figures for hostage taking are more difficult to ascertain, because of the understandable reluctance on the part of aid agencies to acknowledge that kidnappings take place and ransoms are paid.  They are certainly more common in conflict zones such as Mauritania, Sudan and Somalia, where aid workers often find themselves treated as political pawns. 

Not the case in Haiti, where the motive was purely economic.  So, for me, the most frightening aspect of this story is the prospect that aid workers, themselves, could become viewed as a type of commodity.  Across the developing world westerners serve as gatekeepers to resources: cash, food, medicine, tools.  But the reality is that as hostages, aid workers could prove the most valuable commodity of all. 

Statistics prove that aid workers are no longer regarded as untouchable.   Let us hope that snatching them for money is not a trend across the developing world.

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