The murder last week in Pakistan of Scottish nurse Khalil Dale raises a difficult question no-one seems keen to address.  That is; why do NGOs which deploy people to the world’s most dangerous places say they’ll never pay a ransom when their employees are kidnapped?  The London Times came up with the standard defence of Mr Dale’s employer, the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent (ICRC), this week, which is that payment of ransoms simply makes the problem worse by encouraging more kidnapping.  But given that Mr Dale lost his life, apparently horrifically, after 30 years of brave humanitarian service through the same employer, surely we need to interrogate that argument just a bit?

Kidnapping is widespread in many parts of the world where NGOs and commercial companies operate.  Most cases are settled following negotiation and ransom payment. That’s why commercial organizations routinely take out ‘kidnap and ransom’ (K&R) insurance.  In the event of their personnel being held by kidnappers demanding a ransom, K&R experts will make contact with the kidnappers and negotiate a price.  They’ll then organise for delivery of the money and the exchange of the prisoner.  Moreover, many governments operate a tacit policy of ransom-paying as a last resort and will deploy their diplomatic, secret services and commercial agents accordingly.

The ICRC ‘no-ransom’ policy is founded on the idea that to pay money to kidnappers would, in the long run, expose their employees to greater risk.  But kidnappers do not, on the whole, study corporate policies before they kidnap someone.  Most often, they’ll target a worker from the developed world and will correctly assume that his or her employer is likely to at least consider paying a hefty ransom.  There’s no evidence I’m aware of which suggests that a ‘no payment’ policy of some employers affects the preparedness or capacity of all desperate people in the developing world to kidnap people.  Conversely, in many cases there’s every reason to think that once the kidnappers have discovered they’ve bagged a ‘dud’ and will not receive payment, they’ll try to sell the victim on to terrorists for whatever they can get or, in the worst case, simply dispose of the evidence when their capacity to hold the victim runs out.

It’s true that the UK government operates a strict ‘no ransom’ policy.  This may or may not make sense, particularly in the face of many governments who will consider paying a ransom.  But the calculus for a government is quite different from the one other employers have to make.  Governments have armies, diplomatic relationships and a liability for many millions of people.  Other employers have to put their own people first.  K&R insurance is expensive, for sure, but commercial organizations would regard sending people to dangerous places without it as tantamount to refusing health insurance, or failing  insure their company property.  Why do some NGOs see things differently?

Of  course, patterns of kidnap activity and levels of risk are different according to context.  But surely it makes sense to conduct a proper risk assessment in each case, and to recognize that in some cases a ransom will provide the best outcome – that is, to keep the victim alive without putting other employees at risk? Perhaps the K&R premiums are too high for NGOs to feel they can afford it?  But there’s a strong argument for saying that if you can’t afford it, you shouldn’t be putting people at risk of a terrible death by doing things on the cheap.  Harsh?  Harsh but fair?

Whatever, there’s something not right here and NGOs need to justify their ‘no ransom’ policy at much greater length.