Military Humanitarianism: Service Packages, the Way Forward?
by Humanitarian Practice Network April 1995

The emergency situation in Bosnia has set many precedents in terms of international relief responses. Of particular note has been the unique role of the military in humanitarian operations.

Aside from their role in peace-keeping and protection, the military have played an important part in the provision of airlifts and logistics support. Governments have contributed these assets to the humanitarian operation, within the coordination framework provided by UNHCR.

In 1994, the influx of Rwandan refugees into Tanzania and Zaire was of an overwhelming scale and rapidity, and UNHCR quickly recognised the need to expand its response capacity.

It was in this context that UNHCR developed the concept of ‘service packages’, by means of which donor governments would provide self-contained facilities and services, mostly, but not exclusively, from their military forces. UNHCR proposed eight discrete packages of assistance to meet the needs of refugees.

These ranged from the provision of airport services through to site preparation and provision of domestic fuel. Importantly, UNHCR proposed that donors should assume responsibility for the management and administration of their particular package.

In the light of experience gained in the Rwanda crisis, the Executive Committee of UNHCR asked the Commissioner to refine the concept of service packages. This is now being done. Informal consultations between UNHCR and other key players in the relief system are underway to develop the concept. The proposal aims to improve preparedness for major emergencies, by improving capacity for resource mobilization.

It is not assumed a priori that such resources will be limited to the military, and there may be provision for sub-contracting to NGOs under this framework. However, the military is likely to be the most important source of logistics and personnel to expand rapid response capacity, although they will not have a direct role in the delivery of assistance to refugees.

This appears to be an important innovation within the United Nations, and it is certainly one which raises important questions about the changing role of the military in humanitarian aid response. There are also the three principal ‘C’ questions: coordination, costs, and comparative advantage.

In terms of coordination, the mandate for specifying and managing the service packages emerges as an area of potential controversy. Importantly, under UNHCR’s proposals, the emphasis is on responding to refugee emergencies, and it is unclear who would be responsible for the design and delivery of such assistance within non-refugee situations. This, in turn, raises questions as to the respective roles of UNHCR and DHA in defining and coordinating these packages.

In relation to costs, the emphasis of the proposals is in terms of enabling urgent responses to acute emergencies. As a UNHCR background paper points out, the idea of service packages was developed as a stop-gap measure for Sarajevo, and was expected to last only a matter of weeks. The Bosnia crisis is now three years old. It will be important, therefore, to explore what the opportunity costs of such strategies are in prolonged emergencies which are not as relatively well resourced as that in Bosnia.

Finally, the issue of comparative advantage. Delegation of these roles to military actors from donor countries brings with it concerns about the operational and management capacity of bilateral aid institutions.

Furthermore, there is an important advantage of non-military, non-bilateral mechanisms in terms of neutrality: the UN and ICRC can claim a mandate which specifies their neutrality and impartiality in ways which bilateral agencies cannot.

Careful definition of how military actors articulate with the system will be necessary, therefore, particularly in contexts where there are parallel peace-keeping operations in place.