The Civ-Mil Debate

In the next day or two, non-governmental organizations expect to begin mass food distributions to earthquake survivors in Haiti. They’re planning to do this in conjunction with military support- specifically, the US Marines and the United Nations Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).

It’s taken more than two weeks to organize. I’ve explained some of these reasons elsewhere. In short, the logistics of trying to organize food distributions to hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously is an immense undertaking. As well as importing and moving that amount of food (food is heavy stuff), there’s the matter of locating and organizing distribution sites, coordinating dozens of agencies, working through broken infrastructure, communicating the details to the residents of Port-au-Prince, and trying to define the relationship between the military and aid agencies.

The interaction between the military and NGOs has long been a contentious one, and the controversy has only snowballed over the last decade.

It can seem like an academic discussion. Who cares about soft issues like ‘humanitarian space’, ‘independence’ or ‘identity’ when lives are at stake?

Compromising meta-level ideals in a short-term response is part of the aid business. A colleague of mine has defined it as the balance of ‘Pragmatism versus Principle’. It happens every time we run a response. Maintaining principles in the face of complex realities is not always achievable when lives are at stake.

In Port-au-Prince, the argument hinges on security. Reports and rumours of insecurity (see, for example, today’s news from Reuters Alertnet) make aid workers on the ground rightly sceptical about waltzing unprotected into the middle of Port-au-Prince with a truckload of aid supplies. They make a tempting target in a desperate city that was until recently one of the world’s kidnap capitals, and where 4,000 prison inmates escaped when in Biblical fashion their cells were broken open during the quake.

Tempering this, of course, is the recognition that in any disaster aftermath, the stories that get picked up are those of things going wrong, not right. The media jumps on tales of woe, from the stumbling coordination of aid to the voyeuristic fascination with violent mobs of survivors seizing food by force. These stories can skew a context to appear worse than it really is.

Most agree that the security situation in Port-au-Prince is actually better now than it was prior to the quake (not that this is an accolade; as J. points out from the ground, rough estimates suggest fifty percent of distributions turn violent). Though take these comments from a senior UN Peacekeeper in response to MINUSTAH troops firing tear-gas to disperse a crowd at a food-distribution gone awry: “They’re not violent, just desperate. They just want to eat.”

Wise and tempered words from a man at the pointy end of the Civ-Mil debate. They give us balance, and remind us not to dehumanize the vision of an angry mob. Whatever the Haitians’ reaction in the face of grief, fear and need, these are the human beings we as aid agencies are here to help.

The debate on how NGOs should engage with the military, however, is a fierce one. Balancing what needs to get done, with doing it the right way, has vociferous proponents in both sets of trenches. Here’s a bit of a summary of the argument.

Why Aid Agencies Might Want to Work with the Military

Logistics. The military do this well. They have hardware- trucks, choppers, transport planes, landing craft, armoured bulldozers (cool)- and they know how to use them. An army marches on its stomach, or in this day and age, its fuel tank. The success or failure of a military operation depends on its ability to supply its frontline troops with food, ammunition, weapons, fuel and parts, without which even the most highly-trained forces in the best-conceived campaign will grind to a halt. Look to Hitler’s Panzer divisions in Western Europe and North Africa whose advances were so rapid that they left their logistics tails far behind them, with disasterous results. If you absolutely, definitively, imperatively have to get a whole load of stuff moved from A to B in a hurry, call the Marines.

Security. Aid workers don’t carry guns. In fact, aid workers are actively discouraged from carrying guns (precisely so they’re not confused with military personnel- and so they don’t accidentally shoot beneficiaries- or themselves). Most NGOs have very clear guidelines around the carriage of firearms and the hiring of armed guards for security purposes. The logo of an AK-47 with a red line drawn through it is one of the most recognizable symbols of international charities in war-zones around the world, stamped on the side of every white Land Cruiser in sight. Soldiers, however, do carry guns, and spend much of their career learning how to fire them properly. Valuable and vulnerable aid supplies can be easy pickings for armed gangs- and have been targeted by violent men for as long as there have been relief responses. Both for the supplies and for the people delivering them, there is a comfort in knowing the cavalry is close at hand.

Site Organization. Setting up a perimiter is second nature to military forces. Distributing food to thousands of people at a time is a complex affair which requires careful site management to avoid panic, crushes, security incidents and chaos. Nothing quite says “behave yourself” than a platoon of green-clad soldiers with M4 Carbines and kevlar helmets.

Communication. Getting hundreds of thousands of people to arrive simultaneously at a bunch of different distribution sites across a city takes some serious coordination, and some pretty solid information flow. Military forces have communications gear, personnel and vehicles handy to be able to spread this message.

Problem-Solving. When it comes to getting through no matter what the challenges, the army usually has the hardware to deal with it. Got a blocked road? A barricade? Need to find an alternative route? Choppers, engineering plant and trained personnel can make quick decisions and usually have access to better, more holistic and more up-to-date information than NGO staff, who will have only a portion of the pie. This is, of course, assuming you’re not trying to navigate a convoy out of Mogadishu’s Black Sea quarter

Decision-Making. NGOs are consensus-driven beasts. Getting a rapid decision out of just one NGO can be like squeezing milk from a railway girder. Put twelve of them in a room together, well, those of who who’ve ever been in a UNOCHA coordination meeting know what I’m talking about. You don’t normally have this problem with the army. When they want something done, they tend to get it done.

Envy. Because let’s face it, pretty much every male aid worker out there at one time or another thought about being in the army. And those armoured trucks with the self-inflating tyres are AWESOME.

Why Aid Agencies Should Not Work with the Military

Identity. The “N” in “NGO” stands for “Non”. As in “Non-Governmental Organization”. Militaries, by contrast, are every bit governmental organizations- however they may present themselves. No army deploys without the consent and instruction of its government, and no government deploys its most valuable military assets without having something to gain. The Red Cross Code of Conduct is an internationally-recognized agreement between international aid agencies which outlines how organizations should operate in an emergency. Point 4 of the 10 guidelines states “We shall endeavour not to act as instruments of government foreign policy”. Working alongside military organizations, however ‘humanitarian’ their mandate may appear, compromises this code.

Fear. Guns and uniforms trigger a response in almost anybody. Sometimes that response can be a reassuring one, such as the sight of armed officers at airports to protect from hijackers. However that argument comes from a Western worldview where the military and the police are well-behaved, disciplined and highly trained. In most disaster-affected countries that NGOs respond in, militaries are not. They can be violent, abuse their power, are poorly disciplined, and often represent either themselves, or a particular minority of the political spectrum. This is certainly true in a country like Haiti. Having armed soldiers at a distribution point, far from being reassuring, can trigger fear in aid recipients. We don’t want this. These are not cattle. They are survivors and the families we are trying to help.

Trust. NGOs operate on trust, and it’s a fragile currency. We spend years building relationships with communities. We maintain impartiality so that we can deliver aid to people who need it on both sides of a war-zone, often garnering respect from both parties, able to cross front-lines and in some instances, acting as mediators between fighting groups. When it works well, it means we can travel in areas of conflict without military escorts and without worrying about being attacked (although, admittedly, those days are waning). When we engage with military actors, our message to our beneficiaries is, “we don’t trust you not to hurt us”. This is not respectful, does not treat the recipients of our assistance with dignity, and compromises their ability to trust us in the future.

Worst-case Scenario. What if something does go wrong? What if an aid distribution gets rowdy and military personnel feel compelled to use deadly force to protect themselves or the aid supplies? The first tragedy is that somebody has been killed instead of helped. Furthermore, if members of a crowd get shot during an NGO distribution, the crowd that witnesses that (and any media who happen to be filming at the time) will associate that violence not just with the military, but with the NGO running the distribution. Will that NGO ever be able to work with that community again?

Global Messaging. The era of CNN has peaked. The first point of contact for instant breaking news is no longer news websites, but sources like Twitter and text message. In-depth analysis is still carried out by edited publications like the Guardian and the New York Times, but people increasingly refer to unaccountable blogs (like this one) that can say whatever they feel like. Information can travel from one corner of the world to the other in seconds, and be re- (and miss-) interpreted as it goes. Images of NGO X working in Haiti alongside US Marines can end up on a computer terminal or cell-phone in northern Pakistan, Afghanistan or Indonesia, and that NGO be identified as an extension of US foreign policy. Staff of NGO X in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Indonesia are then tarred with the same brush, and put at instant risk. The loss of trust is no longer local, but global, and has both operational and security implications.

Rules of Engagement. Military forces have often engaged in assistance missions to populations affected by war or disaster. However it’s important to realise that soldiers are trained to fight and to kill first and foremost, and that is the raison d’etre of any army. The US Army didn’t equip its AH-64 Apache gunships with Hellfire missiles so that they could provide aerial guidance for aid convoys driving through broken cities. Likewise the US Marines aren’t certified as Riflemen and given highly accurate assault-rifles so they can stand around and oversee aid distributions. Any humanitarian operation they engage in is a secondary skill-set. Mixing forces designed and honed for extreme, precise violence with humanitarians whose sole purpose is to distribute assistance to survivors of disasters is not necessarily a healthy combination.

Legacy. There is often a historical link between an army providing assistance, and the country they are operating in. More often than not this is because the country sending the army has a foreign-policy interest in the country they are assisting. This is plainly obvious in Iraq and Afghanistan, where US and British forces both carry out ‘humanitarian’ assistance missions (it’s important to note the deliberate misuse of the word ‘humanitarian’, which carries with it connotations of neutrality and seperation from parties to conflict). Likewise in Haiti, the US military has been complicit in affecting domestic politics, particularly under the Clinton regime when US pressure and military engagement helped to re-enstate then-recently-deposed President Aristide. NGOs associating with military forces automatically attract this same historical baggage.


The debate really centres around the issue of what is called Humanitarian Space. It’s the idea that truly humanitarian organizations (which have special status under International Humanitarian Law) are distinct from military organizations in that they are never party to a conflict, do not support one side over another, do not use force to achieve their aims, and maintain neutrality. This provides them access to people in need regardless of political or other affiliation, central to NGOs’ purpose of reaching the most affected in any emergency. Military actors, by contrast, always have an ulterior motivation, most easily summed up in the cliche “Hearts and Minds”- that is, attempting to win over a population to support your own cause rather than that of an enemy. (This is why US, British and Australian field commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan often have discretionary funds to spend while on manouevres- whether to rebuild a school, install a water system, or bribe a local community leader in their ongoing battle with insurgency.)

Humanitarian Space refers to the notional and academic seperation between humanitarian agencies and military actors, to ensure that observers can clearly differentiate between the two. The fear among NGOs is that with the destruction of that space (by NGOs working alongside uniformed military, or by military forces refering to their operations perversely as a “Humanitarian Mission”), observers (particularly those who carry guns or drive vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices) will fail to draw that distinction. We point to a growing list of serious security incidents carried out not just by bandits but by politically-motivated military and para-military forces who identify the international aid community with a Western invasion of their homeland and culture- the bombing of the UN compound in Iraq, the kidnapping and/or killing of numerous aid workers in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Darfur, and the bombing of the World Food Program headquarters in Pakistan late last year, to name just a smattering.

To balance the above we must recognize that aid agencies don’t help themselves by frequently espousing a very western view of multiparty democratic form of government touted by the same governments carrying out military invasions in some of these countries. Agencies themselves can carry out culturally insensitive and alienating project work- sensitive topics in conservative societies include female education or sexual health. Likewise, western agency staff can make themselves targets of extremists through personal behavious such as ostentatious lifestyles in the face of extreme poverty, dress-codes, or the consumption of drugs and alcohol. I’m pretty sure that aid workers don’t deserve to get shot, blown up or beheaded for this, but it does set them up as figureheads of a western imperialistic regime which observers have come to hate but can’t find another way to strike at.

Ultimately, the decision whether or how to work with the military must espouse this balance between ethical principles and the pragmatic need to support people in need. It needs to balance short-term gains with long-term strategy. It must not be reactive, based on unfounded fear or knee-jerk reactions to perceived insecurity and cultural differences. It must be based on careful context analysis and a thoughtful, engaged decision-making process.

Of course, in the midst of a chaotic emergency response operation, where information is scant and changing every half-hour, and staff are stretched to capacity already, this care and deliberation is not always possible, and grace in the process is necessary. The Humanitarian Principle- the need to save lives- is always our number one priority. However where possible, thoughtful balance needs to be our approach.

There is room for compromise. Using MINUSTAH forces rather than US Marines will be a far more palatable option in Port-au-Prince. Soldiers providing route security (i.e. running patrols on specific transit corridors to limit the chances of violence) is preferable to directly escorting food convoys with Light Armoured Vehicles. Foreign troops supporting national army and police forces to re-establish order and control in neighbourhoods is better than having armed footsoldiers with M16s standing guard by sacks of grain at a food distribution.

By establishing good relations with community members, clear communication with and registration of recipients prior to a distribution, and establishing a clear and well-organized distribution site will go a long way to minimizing the chance of violence. Crowd control may well be possible using a couple of uniformed hired guards armed with nothing more than a baton and a walkie-talkie (I’ve seen less than this controlling crowds of ten thousand and more in camps in Darfur). This won’t stop malicious interference by armed gangs. But then, if you have the community on-side, they can go a long way to minimising the chances of this sort of event taking place.

All that in an ideal world. The important thing is that the debate between pragmatism and principle takes place, and that well-founded ethical positions fought for over decades of bitter experience are not flushed in the name of getting a few good shots of your particular brand of aid agency handing out timely food parcels to starving masses.

Good luck to those on the ground trying to navigate this particular minefield.

Note: For those wanting a more succint and punchy version of this topic, check out J.’s very readable post entitled Send in the Marines? Or Not…

One comment on “The Civ-Mil Debate

  1. Pingback: How to Slaughter Your Own People (Without the International Community Stopping you) « WanderLust

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