Issue 32 - Article 11

International troops, aid workers and local communities: mapping the perceptions gap

January 11, 2006
Larry Minear and Antonio Donini, Feinstein International Famine Center

The pages of Humanitarian Exchange and Disasters bear witness to the fact that the interaction between international military forces and aid workers has become a subject of great fascination. Amid the heated discussions of the issue, however, little attention has been paid to how local communities and vulnerable populations perceive their own security and survival prospects. These perceptions are the subject of recently concluded research contrasting local views of peace and security with the views of foreign troops and aid agencies. This article highlights the findings of the research, examines its reception to date and explores its implications for future international engagement in complex emergencies.

The research

In mid-2005, the Feinstein International Famine Center at Tufts University released a study entitled Mapping the Security Environment: Understanding the Perceptions of Local Communities, Peace Support Operations, and Assistance Agencies. Funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and organised by the UK NGO–Military Contact Group, the study was based on individual and focus group interviews with some 350 people in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. The research was conducted in January–February 2005 by an international interdisciplinary team.

The study did not seek to assess the performance of international military or humanitarian aid personnel in the three settings, but rather to document the understandings of local interlocutors of peace and security. Local viewpoints contrasted sharply with those of foreign military and aid personnel. The research confirmed the working hypothesis that outsiders define peace and security in their own terms, with little reference to the aspirations and priorities of local people.

In an effort to interpret the data collected, the report distinguishes between physical security (the protection of life and limb) and human security (a wider concept with economic, social, and cultural dimensions). It also differentiates between negative peace (the absence of outright conflict) and positive peace (the sense that the underpinnings of the conflict are being addressed, and that local people feel empowered to participate in this process). Several specific findings stand out.

First, neither international military nor aid personnel put security as understood by local communities at the top of their own agendas. Both were concerned first and foremost with their own security. In the case of the military, ‘force protection’ was the controlling reality, amplified to a degree by the rules of engagement of the respective military missions. For aid agencies, the prevailing security concern involved the safety of staff and operations, although aid groups seemed somewhat more attuned than their military counterparts to the expressed needs of communities for human security in the form of jobs, electricity, education and other essentials. Some military contingents (e.g., the British and the New Zealanders in Afghanistan) and some aid groups cultivated close working relations with local communities, believing that their own security was enhanced by that interaction. Other militaries sought security not by interacting with the local scene and ‘blending in’, but by keeping their distance and their distinct identity. For both sets of international interveners, however, ensuring security as understood by local communities remained a second-order concern.

Second, local communities were more concerned that aid was delivered, and less concerned about who delivered it. When assistance was needed, it did not much matter whether it was provided by military personnel or civilians. Yet local people were quite able to distinguish among international institutions. In Sierra Leone, they made clear distinctions – and value judgments – between the various UNAMSIL contingents (e.g., between Pakistani, Nigerian and Ukrainian troops). In Kosovo, they drew a clear distinction between the NATO-led KFOR force and the UN mission, UNMIK (the former was regarded more highly). In Afghanistan, people made fewer distinctions among NGOs, perhaps reflecting comments by a senior government official that all NGOs were corrupt, and a growing disenchantment with the aid effort.

Third, local communities were overwhelmingly appreciative of foreign military operations and personnel. Military power was seen as particularly indispensable when conflict was raging. The ‘B52 factor’ in Afghanistan and the intervention by British troops in Sierra Leone received high marks. KFOR was valued in Kosovo not only among Kosovar Albanians, who saw NATO troops as liberators, but also – and notably – by the Kosovo Serb minority, which viewed KFOR personnel as protectors, if also occupiers. For their part, Romas tended to view KFOR as their only protection. In all settings, humanitarian actors themselves acknowledged the central role of the military in providing physical security, and made no pretence of being able to do this themselves.

As conflicts abated and the need for physical security gave way, in the eyes of local communities, to a priority for human security, international military personnel were also seen as moving more quickly to reconstruction work than their aid counterparts. In Sierra Leone, people expressed particular appreciation for the work of the Pakistani contingent of UNAMSIL for rebuilding mosques, an activity not taken up by aid groups. In Afghanistan, while the behaviour of ISAF and Coalition forces was not beyond reproach, the overall assistance effort, and NGOs in particular, was often criticised. In post-conflict settings, there was also more argument between military and aid personnel on the division of labour. In Kosovo, as an example, there was confusion when otherwise under-occupied KFOR military personnel embraced tasks such as collecting garbage and directing traffic. In Afghanistan, local communities seemed appreciative of assistance as long as it addressed their felt needs.

In sum, if local people had been writing the script for soldiers and aid workers, their emphasis would have been on strong military involvement to provide protection during conflicts, followed promptly by a pragmatic, all-hands-on-deck approach to rehabilitation. While destitute widows and unemployed workers obviously could not have designed national post-conflict reconstruction plans, they were in no doubt that, whatever division of labour was established, they would have liked to see the delivery of essential goods and services expedited. At the same time, local communities wanted more of a say in establishing priorities and in ensuring that the international presence contributed to enhanced human security and, ultimately, to peace.

How the study was received

During the six months since its completion, the report of the research has circulated widely. Copies have been provided to many of those interviewed in the three settings. Its findings and recommendations have also been discussed with some 300 people in debriefings in London, Geneva, New York, Washington, Copenhagen and Ottawa. Several important themes emerge from these discussions.

First, progress is being made in moving the civil–military debate into more constructive, and less ideological, terrain. The verdict of local communities is in fact shared by many aid operatives: foreign military forces provided welcome security in each of the three settings. In the view of one commentator at the London debriefing, this conclusion should encourage aid workers to look past their often almost visceral antagonism towards the military. There is less unanimity, however, on the matter of the direct provision of assistance by the military. One participant in the Washington debriefing attached great importance to what he saw as a key conclusion: that assistance is not necessarily less valuable or less appropriate simply because it is dispensed by uniformed troops, rather than by card-carrying humanitarians. On the other hand, the study confirmed the existence of major and unresolved differences in approach. The British and New Zealand militaries have a policy of keeping out of the realm of assistance, to the general satisfaction of aid agencies, while the US and some of its NATO allies are more engaged – in the case of the US-led provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan, to the point of merging security and assistance objectives.

Second, the sponsorship of the research by a joint military–NGO grouping reflected a desire among military and aid personnel in the UK to find practical ways of working together. There is an implicit acknowledgement, in the UK and beyond, that, whether NGOs like it or not, the military is here to stay in the humanitarian arena. The research seminar in London, sponsored by the British Ministry of Defence, was very receptive to the data assembled by the research team. The gathering of 100 people, which included substantial representation from the armed forces, proposed an Action Plan with some 30 individual elements. These included specific recommendations on planning, operations, assessment and doctrine. The most significant items were calls for greater attention to comparative cost-effectiveness and transparency in funding military and assistance activities, and for ongoing research on the issues identified in a wider range of countries and at more varied stages of the response. The seminar itself was a European affair: North American militaries and NGOs were largely absent.

The implications

The study has several wide-ranging implications. First, it noted a stark inequity between funds available for the military and for assistance purposes. In the case of UN peacekeeping operations, funding for military personnel is ‘assessed’, while contributions for assistance activities are ‘voluntary’. During a conflict, favouring the military seems logical; as the situation evolves after the conflict, however, this focus arguably becomes dysfunctional. Several years after the end of the war in Sierra Leone, the UNAMSIL budget was almost as high as all other bilateral and multilateral aid combined. (Locals, however, expressed concern about the negative economic consequences of planned reductions in the peacekeeping mission.) In Afghanistan, expenditure on foreign militaries exceeds international recovery and reconstruction assistance by a factor of ten. In promoting positive peace, are such highly skewed allocations a cost-effective use of resources?

Second, ‘security’ is an overriding concern to all three sets of actors. However, the perspective of the international actors reflects the perceived security needs of donor governments. While NGOs as a group may be more in tune with the needs of local communities than foreign military contingents, NGOs’ modus operandi and funding structure, and the values that they represent and transmit, make non-governmental groups an intrinsic part of a ‘Northern enterprise’ which is variously welcomed, accepted with suspicion or kept at arm’s length. The funding available and the activities underwritten reflect objectives more related to ‘global ordering’ than to the expressed needs of local communities.

The three case studies exemplify in different ways the broader global trend towards ‘the securitisation of aid’. While having their own national security writ large may serve donor government objectives in the short term, ignoring or marginalising local perceptions may in the longer term undermine the potential for peace, and compromise the safety of international personnel. A major rethinking of peace support and assistance operations will be required if local perceptions are to become the entry-point, or at least a more important element, in the interventions, programme planning, evaluation and accountability of outsiders.

Third, local voices for the most part are not being heard, much less ‘privileged’ by outside actors. The dominant perspectives in post-conflict environments are those of the outsiders. Even host governments are often ignored. Interviews with international military and assistance actors in all three settings highlighted a lack of systematic devices for taking local perceptions into account. Collecting timely data on the views of local communities on the direction of the aid effort, how it affects them and the extent to which it corresponds to their needs and aspirations should not be an insurmountable challenge. The study provides examples of how such consultation can take place through simple tools like focus groups and semi-structured interviews.

Finally, the study underscores the need for international institutions, military and humanitarian alike, to treat their contributions in such settings as modest, and the gains made as highly provisional. Although international agencies can take credit for progress in all three settings examined, the political situation in each remains precarious. If negative peace does not segue promptly into positive peace, local perceptions of the military and its erstwhile positive role may sour. That was the unfortunate trend in Afghanistan. In February, Coalition troops were eliciting critical comments in focus group interviews for search-and-destroy missions undertaken without local consultation. By September, President Hameed Karzai was publicly insisting on such consultation, to the evident discomfiture of the internationals.

Thus, the jury is still out on the relative contributions of military and aid actors to security as it is perceived by local communities in the three settings examined.

Larry Minearheads the Humanitarianism and War Project at Tufts University’s Feinstein International Famine Center. His email address is: Antonio Donini, a senior researcher at the Center, led the research team whose findings are reported here. His email address is This article reflects their own views. The study, Mapping the Security Environment: Understanding the Perceptions of Local Communities, Peace Support Operations, and Assistance Agencies, by Antonio Donini, Larry Minear, Ian Smillie, Ted van Baarda and Anthony C. Welch, is available at

References and further reading

Nik Bredholt, ‘Some Southern Views on Relations with the Military in Humanitarian Aid’, Humanitarian Exchange, no. 30, June 2005.

Roger Persichino, ‘Meeting Humanitarian Need in Post-conflict Environments’, Humanitarian Exchange, no. 24, July 2003.

Jane Barry with Anna Jefferys, A Bridge Too Far: Aid Agencies and the Military in Humanitarian Response, HPN Network Paper 37, February 2002.

Save the Children, Provincial Reconstruction Teams and Humanitarian–Military Relations in Afghanistan, November 2004.

Michael Pugh, ‘The Challenge of Civil–Military Relations in International Peace Operations’, Disasters, vol. 29, no. 1, March 2005.

Fabrice Weissman and Roger Leverdier, ‘Humanitarian Action and Military Intervention: Temptations and Possibilities’, Disasters, vol. 28, no. 2, June 2004.

François Grünewald, Consultation with and Participation by Beneficiaries and Affected Populations in the Process of Planning, Managing, Monitoring and Evaluating Humanitarian Action: Afghanistan (London: Overseas Development Institute, 2003).


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