Issue 39 - Article 5

Encroachment and efficiency: armed actors in the relief market place

July 10, 2008
Richard Luff, independent

This article examines the increased presence and expanded role beyond security of state armed forces in crisis situations. In particular, there seems to be a trend towards armed forces undertaking relief and recovery work in armed conflict and natural disasters. The role of military forces in providing assistance is most controversial in armed conflicts, where they are or may become parties to the conflict. In these circumstances, humanitarian agencies recommend that assistance should primarily be left to civilians, to avoid blurring the line between humanitarian actors and armed actors, eroding humanitarian principles and exposing humanitarian agencies to greater security risks. In high-profile armed conflicts such as Afghanistan, there is much debate about whether humanitarianism is being sacrificed in the name of politics and peace-building.

A more crowded and complex environment

To contextualise the debate it is helpful to summarise the factors that have contributed to the greater presence of state armed forces in disaster zones.

First, peace support/enforcement operations have increased significantly. In 1998, the UN deployed 14,000 peacekeepers worldwide; by 2006, there were over 90,000, plus major deployments by NATO and other regional forces. NATO forces in particular have also been mobilised in response to major natural disasters, such as the Indian Ocean tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake.

In many current peace support/enforcement operations, the prevailing political thinking within NATO and the UN is that integrating political, military and assistance interventions will maximise the effectiveness of peace-building efforts, resulting in durable stability and democracy in failed or damaged states. However, UN integrated missions often make the humanitarian aspects of the UN subservient to the political and military aspects of the organisation. Humanitarian agencies have raised concerns over this, and have provided guidance on maintaining the separation of humanitarian and political/military functions. Furthermore, the UN resolution on the Responsibility to Protect (RTP) may mean greater deployment of international armed forces in crisis situations in which humanitarian agencies are present. At the same time, some humanitarian agencies have actively called for military action to protect civilians. Some of the very humanitarian agencies that have called for state armed forces to be deployed will have to be increasingly sophisticated and clear about the way they manage perceptions of association with them.

Alongside the increased presence of government armed forces in crises, the role of private security companies has also grown, notably in highly insecure and politically important environments such as Afghanistan and Iraq. In recent years, these companies have taken on a variety of assistance activities. While relatively little work has been done on the trends in this area, a glance at the websites of private security firms indicates the breadth of their activities, which include assistance and governance, undoubtedly driven by good business opportunities in these new areas. Donors are making funds available to private security companies to undertake assistance activities, without uniforms, often with guns and relatively unregulated. This is a major concern both for state armed forces and for humanitarian agencies.

Second, there has been a recognition of the importance of a more comprehensive approach to disaster management, and a consequent increase in the use of national armed forces in response to major natural disasters. For countries that have reasonably well-equipped national armed forces, this is often a logical choice given the material and personnel resources armed forces possess. However, natural disasters often occur in areas where there is underlying armed conflict, such as northern Sri Lanka and Aceh in Indonesia. In these cases, the armed forces may have until recently been, or may still be, parties to the conflict. Thus, the deployment of these forces in natural disasters may not be as benign as it appears.

Third, alongside the increased presence of national and international armed actors and their expanded roles, there has been a significant growth in NGO activities. According to one report, some 26,000 NGOs globally employ 19 million people, spending $1 trillion. As humanitarian agencies play more prominent roles, so they are more likely to encounter state armed forces.

Finally, humanitarian agencies by their nature are very vulnerable and will quickly retreat when exposed to insecurity, as is well understood by those who may wish to curtail their presence. As the HPG report Providing Aid in Insecure Environments notes: a ‘major violent incident’ can cause ‘some to pull back and the overall aid effort to falter’. This report provides clear data and analysis that political motivations play a large and growing role in targeted attacks. The significant investments in security management by all larger humanitarian agencies over the past ten years have almost certainly prevented a greater increase in injuries and fatalities. Clearly, then, for security reasons, and to maintain independence, agencies need to manage perceptions of association with political actors, including, but not limited to, state armed forces.

Humanitarian principles in the crisis market place

The case for preserving humanitarian principles and protecting the inherently fragile construct of humanitarianism is at the heart of the so-called ‘humanitarian space’ debate. However, the principles are often not understood by state armed forces, are sometimes dismissed by politicians seeking to co-opt agency capacity and may be interpreted as a bid by humanitarian agencies to monopolise the delivery of assistance. The last point – that agencies do not have a monopoly on assistance provision – has been used to advocate for a more open market approach, undervaluing the importance of impartiality and independence in humanitarian action.

The principles debate has become somewhat sterile recently, and a fresh look is needed to break through what often appears to be an impasse. When humanitarian agencies talk about humanitarian space, they often actually mean humanitarian agency space, and specifically physical access for their work. One major agency has defined this as a space in which ‘we are free to evaluate needs, free to monitor the distribution and use of relief goods and free to have dialogue with the people’. Conceptually, this definition may create the impression that humanitarian agencies want to hold on to some form of monopoly. For this reason, it is important to use a broader definition of humanitarian space, along the lines: ‘the space for populations affected by crisis, particularly conflict, to access or receive assistance and protection in line with their rights and needs, i.e. on an impartial basis’. This definition acknowledges the reality that affected populations have their own capacity, but that they should also be able to receive assistance in line with their needs, regardless of who is providing it. This picks up on an important point highlighted in the Mapping the Security Environment project commissioned by the UK NGO Military Contact Group (NMCG), namely that ‘local communities were more concerned that aid was delivered and less concerned about who delivered it’.

If the supply of aid potentially comes from an increasing range of actors, including armed actors and commercial companies, then traditional humanitarian agencies are going to have to argue their case more comprehensively, or else be undermined by those that would use an argument of realism against principles. This argument for a more realistic approach will draw in those who advocate for a more market-based approach to the supply of assistance. Situating the provision of assistance to address human loss and suffering within the concept of a market is problematic, not least because it undermines the hard-fought-for belief in rights, but it might help humanitarian agencies to recognise some parallels that exist with supply and demand in the market place. It may be more helpful and appropriate for us to consider what motives for such investments beyond needs and effectiveness, such as hearts and minds efforts, but investments are being made to provide assistance and protection to those in need, and whether the criteria for these investments are the right ones.

Assistance provision by armed forces: questionable investments?

There has perhaps been a more widespread acceptance of the role of military actors in delivering some types of assistance, but the nature and appropriateness of this assistance need to be examined more closely in light of whether investments are sound. Critically, this should oblige donors to consider more transparently why they are making money available to their armed forces to undertake assistance, and what they are paying private security companies to do. Closed and non-competitive agreements for the disbursement of funding are clearly far removed from the market practices that some may espouse. The local communities researched in the Mapping the Security Environment project would be very concerned about who delivered assistance if they were not able to access it because deliverers were partial about whom they worked with, or if it did not meet their needs in an appropriate way. In addition, if assistance was unavailable in one community because its provision by armed forces in a neighbouring province was very expensive and had used up limited budgets, communities would be outraged and deprived.

To reinforce their case, there is an urgent need for humanitarian agencies to examine the appropriateness and cost-effectiveness of the assistance activities they undertake. (It is also worth noting that, if agencies can demonstrate relative value in their work over military and commercial actors, they will also be doing much to demonstrate their accountability, both to donors and to affected communities.) Of course, how we measure value-added and who measures it is key before comparisons can be made between humanitarian agencies, state armed forces and commercial firms. Although this is reductionist, we can look at basic costs as a first measure, though this will not fully take account of other critical factors, such as appropriateness, sustainability and impartiality.

Oxfam commissioned a research project in 2006 entitledEncroachment and Efficiency: Are Military Forces Really Undertaking More Assistance Activities and How Efficient Are They When They Do So?. This states: ‘Finding figures on the military spend on assistance activities is extremely difficult, and most researchers have experienced significant barriers to accessing this information. A former NATO Afghanistan PRT head suggested that there was a lack of transparency by military forces in revealing spends on assistance activities’. Invariably, information is classified for security reasons, and obtaining it has proved very difficult. Nonetheless, the scattered and incomplete information that is available points to significant expenditure and drastically higher costs for state armed forces as compared to humanitarian agencies. Evaluations by the Tsunami Evaluation Commission (TEC) and the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) indicate much higher costs for using military assets for assistance. According to USAID, ‘international food drops, earthquake relief, and medicine deliveries have been counted since 1991, and these totaled $2.3 billion through 2000’. Between 1990 and 1996 the United States deployed military assets and supplies in 34 instances in response to earthquakes, typhoons, famines and floods. A key budgeting/charging consideration concerns whether armed forces separate out core operating costs from an ‘aid contribution’, who pays for each element and whether it counts as official government assistance. Even if aid contributions alone are charged to aid budgets, someone, somewhere still has to pay for core operating costs.

Beyond security, the biggest potential benefit that armed forces can bring is logistics and work on infrastructure, and this has long been recognised by humanitarian agencies. This is where militaries can most efficiently bring to bear their significant personnel and logistical capacity and equipment. However, a report by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services on military involvement in civil assistance in peacekeeping operations listed a range of projects implemented by contingents in direct support of local communities, including medical assistance and the distribution of food, water, clothing and supplies. While there may be obligations under international humanitarian law to provide such assistance, doing so to satisfy political objectives and gain public profile is always a risk. Who foots the bill for this, and how effective will this expenditure have been? Furthermore, there is no political will to independently evaluate these activities, so it is difficult to assess their weaknesses and strengths.

Over the past few years, military doctrine has been further developed to cover assistance, but this is not particularly helpful as it varies from force to force, can be interpreted differently according to the commander in place at the time and can be used to camouflage real motives. In Afghanistan, the range of activities undertaken by the various NATO PRTs clearly demonstrates the incoherence of NATO doctrine. The bottom line from a donor and public perspective is what money is being spent by whom, and what can be achieved with these investments, not how comprehensive the doctrine is.

References and further reading

Richard Luff, The Pressures on ‘Humanitarian Space’ within the New Security Agenda, Oxfam internal paper, September 2004.

SCHR, Humanitarian–Military Relations in the Provision of Humanitarian Assistance, Position paper, 18 October 2004.

IASC, Civil–Military Relationship in Complex Emergencies, IASC Reference Paper, 28 June 2004.

Center on International Cooperation, An Annual Review of Global Peace Operations 2006.

Richard Luff, Proposal for Benchmarks To Preserve Impartiality of Humanitarian Assistance, Oxfam internal paper, September 2005.

Abby Stoddard, Adele Harmer and Katharine Haver, Providing Aid in Insecure Environments, HPG Report 23, 2006.

Victoria Wheeler and Adele Harmer (eds), Resetting the Rules of Engagement: Trends and Issues in Military–Humanitarian Relations, HPG Report 21, 2006. Antonio Donini, Mapping the Security Environment, Feinstein International Famine Centre, 2005.

Rosa Wilson-Garwood, Encroachment and Efficiency: Are Military Forces Really Undertaking More Assistance Activities and How Efficient Are They When They Do So?, internal Oxfam paper, November 2006.



Governments will continue to invest in independent and impartial action undertaken by humanitarian agencies. But they will also invest in assistance undertaken by their own armed forces and by private security companies. Therefore, humanitarian agencies will increasingly find themselves working in close proximity to militaries and private security firms, especially if major donors allocate greater proportions of their budgets to these armed actors. Some of their activities may resemble work that humanitarian agencies usually undertook, causing confusion about the identity and motives of those providing assistance. This means that humanitarian agencies must manage perceptions of association with these actors. In this changed context, humanitarian principles are necessary but not sufficient to preserve humanitarianism. Clarity about the benefits of making investments in humanitarian agencies is also required, in what increasingly looks like a marketplace. Agencies must advocate for increased transparency in government funding of assistance undertaken by state armed forces and private security forces. Finally, there should be political will to independently evaluate and learn from the assistance activities undertaken by state armed forces and private security companies, to provide a more objective basis on which to allocate funds.

Richard Luff is an independent consultant. Previously, he worked for Oxfam (GB) as member of the UK NGO Military Contact Group. His email address is:


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