Visit from civilian and military members of the Provincial Reconstruction Team to a local returnee and refugee village in Afghanistan Visit from civilian and military members of the Provincial Reconstruction Team to a local returnee and refugee village in Afghanistan Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by HMC Josh Ives
Research gaps on civil–-military policy trends
by Lisa Schirch May 2014

For all the dialogue, debate and reams of policy and advocacy reports on civil-–military policy trends, there is surprisingly little research on these issues. All sides of the debate are missing data that might help them make a more convincing case that current civil–-military policy trends are either necessary or dangerous, as articulated by governments/militaries and NGOs respectively.

Governments are tying aid more explicitly to political and security goals and pushing for a comprehensive approach that integrates civilian and military personnel. Military personnel are receiving growing mandates and resources to work alongside NGOs and local populations to provide ‘civic assistance’ – including both humanitarian activities, such as delivering food, and developmental activities, such as building schools. Governments, militaries and some UN agencies see these three civil–-military policy trends as necessary to accomplish political and military goals in counterinsurgency and stabilisation operations, from relatively stable settings in Africa and Latin America to actively hostile regions in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Among local and international aid agencies, there are widespread perceptions that these civil-–military policy trends are dangerous to the mission and safety of aid beneficiaries and aid staff. Many NGOs believe that these trends blur the distinction between civilian and military targets (mandated by International Humanitarian Law), decrease trust among beneficiaries, who suspect that aid serves narrow political ends and decrease their acceptance with beneficiaries who may suffer without external assistance.

Most of the research on these civil–-military policy trends is anecdotal, rather than evidence-based. This article maps out a comprehensive research agenda and methodology in the hope that this will help donors and researchers to develop a coherent approach.

Achieving political and security goals

Government and military policy documents describe the assumed functions that civic assistance plays in improving force security by gaining the support and winning the loyalty of relevant communities or local elites; addressing perceived drivers of instability; gaining access to and information about specific populations; extending the state’s legitimacy and authority; and providing training opportunities for military personnel. Yet in most cases the monitoring and evaluation of military-based civic assistance has relied on measuring how much was spent, rather than the actual output or outcome of the effort in terms of security or development. Both military and civilian researchers have criticised these programmes as at best ineffective, and at worst counter-productive.+See Ben Connoble, Leveraging Development Aid To Address Root Causes in Counterinsurgency (Washington DC: RAND Corporation,2013); ‘Research Areas: Humanitarianism and Politics’, Feinstein International Center, In East Africa, for instance, US counter-terrorism efforts have involved a range of civic assistance activities, including building wells which were 20 times the cost of a comparable NGO project, often did not work well and were regarded with suspicion by local people, who saw the operation as an intelligence-gathering exercise.+Reuben Brigety. Humanity as a Weapon of War: Sustainable Security and the Role of the US Military (Washington DC: Center for American Progress, 2008). Civic assistance efforts may also decrease security for local people. US Female Engagement Teams (FET) aimed to build trust with Afghan women via sewing cooperatives or other microenterprise initiatives, with the hope that they would then encourage their husbands to stay away from insurgent sympathisers.+Christopher McCullough, ‘Female Engagement Teams: Who They Are and Why They Do It’, WWW.ARMY.MIL, 2 October 2012, Anecdotal reports suggest that some of the women engaged by these teams have been killed and their families punished for their involvement with ‘foreigners’.

Large-scale monitoring and evaluation efforts of government and military civic assistance programmes could help answer some of the research gaps outlined here:

  • Do military civic assistance programmes enhance force protection, increasing the acceptance of these forces among local people?
  • Do they build support for the host government and reduce support for insurgents? How do foreign interventions compare with host nation or recipient government efforts that use civic assistance to achieve these goals?
  • What impact do civic assistance efforts have on security and stability, including local perceptions of security, and for whom?
  • What impacts do foreign and host military, government, and contractor-based civic assistance programmes have on the safety of local people who take part in them? Are they at greater risk once military forces withdraw? Are these civic assistance projects specifically targeted by armed opposition groups?
  • Regarding the IHL principle of distinction, do foreign and host military personnel dressed in civilian clothes or driving unmarked vehicles to conduct civic assistance erode the distinction between military and civilian targets?
  • Regarding the IHL principle of precaution, are civilians warned of potential risks to engaging with foreign or host military forces?
  • Regarding the IHL principle of proportion, is the risk to civilians proportionate to the military benefit?

Decreasing NGO security

NGOs widely assert that some foreign military and private security contractors’ civic assistance initiatives can endanger NGO security by creating a perception that NGO and military personnel collaborate on development projects, emphasising that development is a political activity with security impacts and leading armed groups to view NGOs and other civil society organisations as ‘soft targets’. But little research exists to attest to the accuracy of these claims. Recent research suggests there is a more complex dynamic at play, with a variety of factors influencing the decision to target NGOs and UN aid agencies.+Larissa Fast, Aid in Danger: Reclaiming Humanity amidst the Crisis in Humanitarianism (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming, 2014). In Afghanistan, insurgents reportedly researched NGO affiliations and donors, and seemed more amenable to agencies holding to an impartial and independent line towards the government and its foreign allies, even if they were building girls’ schools or doing other activities they opposed. In other words, it seems that, at least for some insurgents, an NGO’s affiliations were more important than what it was actually doing.

  • What impact do the goals and activities of foreign or host military and private security contractors have on the safety and security of NGO and civil society staff, particularly in agencies that use the ‘acceptance model’ as a security strategy and operational imperative?
  • Are NGOs that hold to an independent, impartial and neutral stance safer than those that do not?
  • Regarding the IHL principle of proportion, are the risks to NGOs proportionate to the military benefit, and who measures this?

Undermining sustainable development

NGOs widely perceive that military and private security contractors’ civic assistance efforts undermine long-term sustainable development and are not cost-effective. Guidelines for military involvement in humanitarian assistance recommend that it be time-limited, governed by civilians, timely and a last resort when civilians are unable to respond. Military guidelines for appropriate roles in development do not currently exist.

  • Do military and private security contractor civic assistance initiatives use internationally recognised development metrics, such as the Busan Principles for Effective Development Cooperation, or the New Deal for Fragile States?
  • What kinds of development activities, such as reopening factories or building water systems, may be appropriate for military forces and private contractors? Are there certain types of contexts or certain phases of conflict that might be more or less appropriate for military roles in development?
  • What is the cost comparison of NGO versus military approaches to different types of development?
  • Do military civic assistance programmes cause local people to doubt the goals of all assistance? Does local suspicion of military civic assistance goals in turn undermine NGO access to beneficiaries and hinder development?

Local perceptions

While some studies exist,+Mary B. Anderson, Dayna Brown and Isabella Jean. Time To Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid (Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, November 2012. far too little research focuses on local perceptions of civil–-military relations among civilians and armed opposition groups.

  • Do local civilians and armed opposition groups distinguish between types of NGOs, contractors and military forces conducting humanitarian and development initiatives?
  • Do local civilians and armed opposition groups distinguish between political, security and humanitarian agencies in the United Nations?
  • Do local civilians and armed opposition groups perceive a positive or negative impact of military and private security contractors’ humanitarian and development initiatives?

Civil–-military guidelines and training

Civil–-military guidelines provide guidance (not rules) for how military forces should relate to NGOs. In the UK and Australia, guidelines apply to how military forces relate to all aid agencies – humanitarian, development and other types of multi-mandate NGOs. The civil–-military guidelines developed by the UN and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) only explicitly refer to relations between military forces and humanitarian personnel. The US civil– military guidelines closely mirror this approach. No UN or US guidelines exist to guide relations between military forces and the growing number of non-humanitarian NGOs and civil society organisations (CSOs).

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) delivers training and support for adherence to UN civil– military guidelines. While guidelines for US armed forces and humanitarian NGOs came into being in 2008, the development of a systematic training programme to teach them is only now underway. In Australia, AusAid and NGOs are training military forces in relating to all types of NGOs and CSOs in addition to training on conflict-sensitive development to reduce the potential for military-based civic assistance to undermine sustainable development or to inadvertently increase social divisions, fuel corruption or fund armed groups.

  • Do civil–-military guidelines make a difference? How do the guidelines change military or NGO decision-making or communication in practice?
  • Are civil-–military guidelines for non-humanitarian NGOs necessary?
  • Do military units and private security contractors that have had training on conflict-sensitive development, or on relating to NGOs and other civilians, operate differently than units that have not had such training? Does training reduce negative impacts and improve civil–-military relations?

Potential research designs

A variety of potential research methodologies could help to answer some of the questions described in this article. Ideally, a coalition of researchers representing universities, NGOs and military think tanks whose collective networks could access both the military side and the NGO side could develop a set of joint research questions to test assumptions and measure impacts. Previous researchers on these topics have had more access to and sympathy with either military or NGO/civilian networks. A coalition of civilian and military researchers could take two broad approaches to examine the necessity or danger of current civil–-military policy trends.

Real-time multi-stakeholder research

Real-time research could go in-depth in one country, such as Somalia, where foreign military forces carry out civic assistance to achieve security goals among the same local populations where humanitarian and development NGOs work. Ideally, real-time research could provide a multi-country comparison to assess whether the context itself affects the interaction between government, military and NGO efforts.


A second approach could evaluate impacts over the last decade in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa or the Sahel, where military forces, private contractors and civil society groups have all conducted humanitarian and development activities for different purposes. Many research reports have been done on Afghanistan already. Yet most of this research is anecdotal, and little achieved a comparative analysis of cost, security and humanitarian or development outcomes.

Some data is already available and can be cross-referenced. For example, civic assistance or development efforts in similar villages in the same province by government, contractor and military-run Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) could be compared with NGO efforts in the same region. What impact did military civic assistance projects (with a focus on winning the allegiance of male tribal leaders) have on adjacent community development efforts that involved women in participatory decision-making and relied on local volunteers? A matrix of research questions and data could compare the financial costs, security gains, development gains, sustainability of the project and safety/ security of the staff, volunteers, beneficiaries such as students in PRT-built schools, and the wider community in PRT projects versus those built through the National Solidary Program (NSP) Community Development Council, which involved NGOs and civilian government aid efforts.

Without extensive original research, researchers could also compare the rates of attacks against and kidnapping or killing of NGO and military contractor staff in Afghanistan. Did those NGOs that kept their independence working in the same province or region suffer fewer security incidents than private security contractors and those NGOs that worked explicitly with military forces?

These complex research questions and research designs pose a variety of challenges to potential researchers. Research can reveal correlations but not causation. Data relevant to these questions will be difficult to collect where access is difficult. Still, the research is not impossible, and surely those donors who invest in security, humanitarian assistance and development efforts would do well to understand the contested dynamics between governments, militaries, contractors, the UN and NGOs.

Lisa Schirch directs the Alliance for Peacebuilding’s programme on human security and civil–-military relations. She is also a research professor at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. In February 2013, Dr. Schirch convened a group of Pentagon staff, NGO advocates and university researchers to identify research questions relevant to civil–-military policy trends. This article draws from this research round-table and a review of existing research.