Issue 66 - Article 8

Military actors and humanitarian innovation: questions, risks and opportunities

April 20, 2016
Josiah Kaplan and Evan Easton-Calabria
An Unmanned/Unarmed Aerial Vehicle is prepared for flight in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo

The role of military actors in the international humanitarian landscape has expanded over the last two decades. However, despite growing acknowledgment by humanitarians of the need to search ‘outside’ the traditional humanitarian community for new products, processes and innovations, very little systematic research has examined militaries as a reference point for informing humanitarian innovation. The nature of civil–military relations across the humanitarian community is complex and often fractious; that this lack of engagement extends to the discourse around humanitarian innovation is unsurprising. Nonetheless, a major research gap exists in understanding both the risks and lesson-learning opportunities that military actors present to humanitarian innovation.

This article looks at military actors as a serious subject of study and debate within the humanitarian innovation discourse, and calls for further research on this topic. We outline three areas of exploration, drawing on research conducted at the Oxford Humanitarian Innovation Project (HIP) in 2015, supported by consultations with expert practitioners, policymakers and researchers from across the aid sector, militaries and academia. J. Kaplan and E. Easton-Calabria, Militaries and Humanitarian Innovation: Opportunities and Risks, Refugee Studies Centre Working Paper, 2016.  Taken together, this work suggests the need for better understanding of both the opportunities and hazards that military actors pose to the humanitarian innovation agenda.

Learning lessons from military innovation

The NGO Military Contact Group (NMCG), hosted by the British Red Cross, recently noted that ‘[t]here is clearly a lot of research and development that originates in the military community that could provide real benefit to the humanitarian community and populations on the ground’. NGO-Military Contact Group (NMCG), ‘Challenge and Innovation: Civil-Military Relations in a Changing World’, Conference, London, 26 February 2015, Militaries have significant lesson-learning potential for humanitarian innovation, both as a general reference point and through the identification of novel and scalable dual-use products and processes.

Military innovations developed by defence-sector research and development (R&D) regularly transfer into daily civilian life – and, by extension, humanitarian usage – via commercial channels. While remaining intrinsically linked to controversial security agendas and their associated political economies, the diffusion of dual-use innovations in areas such as information communication technologies (ICT) and medicine has also resulted in formative breakthroughs which have fundamentally contributed to civilian society.

A pivotal factor in achieving such breakthroughs is the sheer scale of military R&D – strikingly high when compared to humanitarian investments in innovation to date. In 2015, for example, the US Department of Defense (DoD) alone allocated $63.5 billion for research, defence, testing and evaluation. US Department of Defense, ‘United States Department of Defense FY 2015 Budget Request Overview’, 2014. Moreover, as militaries are increasingly drawn into humanitarian and development missions, their own large and well-funded innovation systems are confronting design challenges with significant overlap with those the aid community faces. While there may be potential for humanitarian innovators to ‘look to military innovation … as a source of useful ideas’, B. Ramalingam et al., Strengthening the Humanitarian Ecosystem (Brighton: University of Brighton, 2015).  successfully scaling innovations between both communities requires addressing their fundamental differences. These include both actors’ distinct innovation cultures and goals, as well as training, skills and resources.

Examining military innovation for scalable dual-use technologies and processes is one way to begin considering how these differences can be negotiated in practice to enable transferable lesson-learning. As one OCHA official put it: ‘it’s less who we’re learning about innovation from, whether that’s the private sector or the military – it’s how the differences between their sector and ours map onto innovation lessons- learning exercises’. Interview, OCHA official, 5 October 2015. Indeed, many innovations in humanitarian practice already reflect military roots often unrecognised by the aid community. This suggests that, far from a hypothetical source of lesson-learning, humanitarian innovation has historically been intrinsically linked to military research, development and learning.

Information and Communication Technology
Such impact is clearly illustrated in military R&D contributions to modern commercial ICT, a dominant subject of wider humanitarian innovation discussions. The last half-century has seen seminal ICT breakthroughs, enabled through research conducted or directly funded by militaries. These include internet, email, GPS and interactive maps (later commercially adapted, such as Google Streetview). Moreover, military R&D breakthroughs will continue to influence, and perhaps fundamentally alter, civilian ICT: areas of significant investment by the US DoD and UK Ministry of Defence include research on Terahertz-range communications, improved geo- location technology drawing on the Earth’s magnetic field and remote-controlled robotics for use in natural disasters.

Remote sensing and geospatial technology is another area of humanitarian innovation whose military lineage is clearly evident, particularly in the emergence of civilian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). UAVs – commonly referred to as drones – have strong roots in technologies originally developed for military use, yet are rapidly becoming a highly visible, and often controversial, tool of humanitarian surveillance and observation, including crisis mapping and search and rescue operations. OCHA, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Humanitarian Response, OCHA Policy and Study Series (Geneva: OCHA, 2014).

It is clear that militaries hold tremendous experience in the research, development and use of UAVs, and will remain an important source of innovation and good practice around this emerging technology for the foreseeable future. Moreover, while the nascent humanitarian and human rights remote- sensing community lacks standard methodologies for analysing the large amounts of geospatial data produced by these new remote sensing technologies, these processes have already been refined through decades of tested military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) doctrine. Z. Achkar, I. Baker and B. Card, Sharing Space: Adapting Military Approaches to Geospatial Analysis for Humanitarian Response and the Documentation of Human Rights Abuses, Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research, Harvard School of Public Health, 2013.

Strategic planning
Military approaches to strategic planning and knowledge management draw on large-scale information networks, strong institutional support for strategic planning and proven processes and models for setting clear planning goals. Weiss argues that, while humanitarians ‘will undoubtedly take offense with this generalization’, military organisations nonetheless ‘tend to better value learning, and supervisors invest substantial resources in institutional infrastructure to assemble and act on lessons than their humanitarian counterparts’. T. Weiss, Humanitarian Business (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), p. 195.  Military strategic planning mechanisms, such as the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Analysis Center (TRAC) and the UK MoD’s Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC), demonstrate planning capabilities which extend far beyond the typical one-year horizons relied upon by humanitarian organisations. R. Kent and J. Ratcliffe, Responding to Catastrophes: US Innovation in a Vulnerable World (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2008); Deloitte, ‘Promoting Humanitarian Innovation Exchanges: Developing Models for Humanitarian Innovation Knowledge Bases’, 2015.

Although rarely acknowledged, several ubiquitous humanitarian planning approaches reflect military origins, most notably the logical framework and matrix, which originated as a 1960s US military planning framework. After-Action Reviews (AARs) and mission-to-task have likewise developed from their US Army origins into a widely adopted knowledge management and accountability tool in humanitarian practice.

Additional areas
Further work is required to fully map and prioritise areas for deeper consideration. Synergies to explore include military approaches to simulation and gaming. Militaries are also extremely creative in rebuilding disrupted supply chains and solving logistical problems in conflict and natural disasters. The diffusion of products and processes from military to humanitarian medicine also has a long history, particularly in trauma care. In public health, military research has contributed to key innovations in understanding of immunology, parasitology and vaccine development, most recently during the West Africa Ebola response. J. Kaplan and E. Easton-Calabria, ‘Military Medical Innovation and the Ebola Response: A Unique Space for Humanitarian Civil-Military Engagement’, Humanitarian Exchange, 64, June 2015. 5.

Opportunities – but also risks

Along with opportunities for lesson-learning from military innovation, there is an equally important need to critically engage with the risks this may pose to humanitarian principles and practice. Many of these principle-based issues are concretised in the evolving application of specific military- derived ICT innovations in humanitarian assistance. Increasing reliance on ‘data philanthropy’ from government military intelligence sources, for instance, poses a growing challenge to humanitarian impartiality. N. Raymond and B. Card, Applying Humanitarian Principles to Current Uses of Information Communication Technologies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, 2015).

Due in part to such concerns, important work has begun on professional principle-based frameworks for guiding humanitarian innovation. Humanitarian Innovation Project (HIP), ‘Principles for Ethical Humanitarian Innovation’, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, 2015. It remains important, however, that this emerging work (which tends to focus predominantly on private sector ICT partners) also considers militaries as central brokers of ICT assets, capabilities and data for humanitarian use. The use of drones, especially in conflict settings, has raised particular concerns regarding privacy and neutrality during data collection, and the related need for transparency and informed consent for the communities drones are observing. K. Sandvik and K. Lohne, ‘The Rise of the Humanitarian Drone: Giving Content to an Emerging Concept’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 43(1), 2014.

The rise of humanitarian technology is also propelled by the defence and intelligence surveillance industries’ search for new markets and the legitimacy provided by partnerships with humanitarian actors. As Sandvik and Lohne write, the production and diffusion of dual-use military and commercial technologies ‘raise questions about costs, lobbying, and the framing of political agendas’. Ibid., p.150.  More work from a political economy lens is needed in investigating the motivations, perceptions, incentives and challenges involved in firms providing commercial off-the-shelf technologies to both military and humanitarian markets. Many commercial suppliers of humanitarian products at this year’s AidEx Conference, for example, also supplied military customers.

It is important to separate tangible risks to humanitarian principles from general unease about certain technologies with military origins, of which there are countless examples in everyday use. Advocates of so-called ‘humanitarian drones’ argue, for instance, that the military character of drone technology is often misunderstood, with humanitarian critics failing to differentiate between the explicit military origins of larger fixed-wing UAVs and the commercial civilian lineages of smaller, primarily rotary UAVs. This point remains open to further debate between humanitarian drone proponents and their critics, and could certainly benefit from greater historical clarity. At the same time, both technologies are similar enough that many of the risks experienced by military adoption of UAV technologies – such as the introduction of a ‘distancing effect’ which abstracts and distorts the messy realities of ground operations – can also hold instructive and relevant warnings for humanitarians. Ibid.

Too little is understood about the risks that the diffusion of military innovation may pose to humanitarian practice and principles. Yet critical perspectives do not need to compete with work to identify possible areas of synergy and exchange. An informed, considered debate should pursue these research streams, balancing an investigation of the potential benefits of military innovations with critical dialogue on the associated risks.

Ways forward: a research agenda for military actors in humanitarian innovation

Bringing together research on the opportunities, challenges and implications of innovation diffusion and exchange between the military and humanitarian communities paves the way for engaging both sets of actors in collaborative dialogue and debate. As an initial step, case study analysis of military dual- use innovations and approaches to innovation management would be of immediate value. There is also potential for military and humanitarian innovation experts to directly engage with each other through active co-learning. Military practitioners might be invited to contribute insights and expertise around innovation management, or be consulted for their technical experience with military product and process innovations adapted to the humanitarian context.

Existing platforms of civil–military engagement should be used to facilitate the input of military actors into learning around humanitarian innovation. Leading convenors of civil– military dialogue, such as InterAction, the United States Institute of Peace, the NMCG, the Center for Civil–Military Excellence and OCHA’s CMCoord, already bring together civilian, military, government and academia for collaborative knowledge exchange. They are therefore natural vehicles for hosting conversations around innovation diffusion and ex- change between militaries and humanitarians. Such conversations could initially take the form of workshops, seminars and conferences. Academia also has an important role to play in convening dialogue around innovation in a neutral environment, moderated within a format permitting anonymity and frankness (i.e. under the Chatham House Rule).

Facilitating more active co-learning between two mutually distrustful communities is not easy. Any military contributions to learning around humanitarian innovation should, first, occur at a time and place well away from active emergency response. Utmost care must also be taken in addressing the significant concerns around information-sharing and data privacy between both communities. And it will be essential to consult with a wide diversity of military stakeholders, particularly Southern and middle-income country militaries. As the most common first responders to natural disasters, these forces possess unique perspectives and may provide some of the most innovative new ideas for humanitarian practice.

A research agenda exploring the relationship between military actors and humanitarian innovation challenges the boundaries of current rhetoric, which espouses the need for greater engagement with ‘non-traditional’ partners such as the military, but without seriously confronting the risks and opportunities involved in doing so. Innovation is a valuable area for learning and constructive engagement and dialogue between two communities long known for their strong mutual distrust. As such, innovation through the lens of civil–military relations is worthy of further research and deliberation.

Josiah Kaplan is Senior Research Adviser at ELRHA. Evan Easton-Calabria is a doctoral candidate at the Humanitarian Innovation Project, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford.


Comments are available for logged in members only.