Issue 5 - Article 2

‘Service Packages’: The Role of Military Contingents in Emergencies

June 1, 1996
Humanitarian Practice Network

On 14 July 1994, approximately 850,000 Rwandans poured into the Zairean town of Goma. UNHCR, charged with coordinating assistance to these refugees, found itself overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. Camps had to be set-up, water generation, storage and distribution systems installed, access roads constructed, latrines dug and hospitals built, in an area where much of the terrain was of hard volcanic rock. Although contingency stocks did exist – built up by organisations which had been working in the area prior to the influx, such as ICRC, OXFAM and MSF-Holland, these were insufficient to meet the enormous initial demands. Plastic sheeting, water tankers, rehydration fluids, vehicles, radios, and many other items were needed immediately, with air transport the only viable option.

Recognising the urgent need for considerable additional management and implementation capacity in Goma, UNHCR requested donor governments to provide “self-contained service packages”. Donors, through the deployment of civil defence teams, military contingents, or civil disaster response teams, were to take full responsibility for the management and implementation of specific activities, in contrast to the established procedure whereby donors supplied funds to UNHCR, which then arranged a contractual relationship with an implementing partner. Eight ‘Government Service Packages’ (GSPs) were initially specified: airport services; logistics base services; road servicing and road security; site preparation; provision of domestic fuel; sanitation facilities; water management; and management of an airhead.

The concept of GSPs, although assembled in response to the overwhelming needs in Goma, represented an evolution of the stand-by agreement model, in which an organisation’s personnel and resources could be called upon at short notice, but would be managed by UNHCR, and expenditures recorded in UNHCR’s accounts. Stand-by agreements, first made with the Swedish Rescue Board in 1991, were used successfully during the response to the Kurdish crisis, and again in Sarajevo, where military assets were used in the airlift.

The response to the Ngara influx at the end of April 1994 can be seen as a transitional case in the development of the ‘service package’ concept. EMERCOM (of the Russian Federation) deployed a fleet of six-wheel-drive trucks to Ngara under a stand-by agreement developed earlier in the year; the UK ODA provided a self-contained team of logistics specialists to manage cargo handling at the Mwanza airhead; and the US provided a strategic airlift capability.

Although most of the immediate needs in Goma were eventually met, many of the packages involved military contingents and teams from more than one country working together, rather than single country teams as envisaged in the initial request. For example, GTZ, the Swedish Rescue Board, MSF-France, IRC, OXFAM and Concern all worked in the sanitation sector, which represented just one package. Similarly, the water management package was effectively undertaken by a combination of at least a dozen NGOs, military contingents, UN agencies, civil defence organisations and donor teams. Considerable additional capacity was obtained, but the fact that a number of organisations were involved within the same packages substantially increased the coordination burden upon UNHCR, and created confusion that may have reduced the effectiveness of the response.

Following the experiences in Goma, and in the hope of benefiting from donors’ apparent willingness to provide military assets for use in humanitarian operations, UNHCR initiated a process of further consideration and development of the GSP model. As part of this process, a series of meetings were convened in Geneva to discuss the GSP model with donors and NGOs. At the first meeting in April 1995, UNHCR presented a concept paper highlighting some of the problems that had emerged from the Goma experience, for example the number of organisations involved in some of the individual packages reflected the fact that they were unrealistically large; the requests lacked technical and professional specifications; deployment was slow and staggered; the failure to define needs, implementation procedures and coordination mechanisms allowed the ‘push’ of material offered to override the ‘pull’ of material actually required in the field; vertical coordination between UNHCR and the governments involved was never sufficiently established at the Geneva level; and the coordination of different governments involved in different activities presented daunting challenges.

The Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda, which evaluated the use of ‘service packages’, found that there were a number of important problems not discussed in UNHCR’s concept paper. Firstly, the provision of direct in-kind assistance by governments transfers responsibility for the funding of the activity to the government providing the service. NGOs that traditionally rely upon UNHCR for funding are placed at a disadvantage, unless they can ensure that they are part of the ‘service package’ provided by their governments. In addition, there are potential difficulties in marrying the inputs of military contingents with those of NGOs carrying out the same activities, and ensuring that the military do not install systems for the provision of water, sanitation or health services that cannot be operated cost-effectively by NGOs when the military pull out.

The Rwanda Evaluation also found that the deployment of civil defence teams or military contingents appeared to be significantly more expensive than the financing of NGOs to undertake comparable activities. Such expenditures were seen by some as purely additional to what would otherwise have been received from the donor government concerned and, from this point of view, the high costs were not a major issue. Yet, though it is true that in the case of Goma, UNHCR would never have received comparable amounts in cash to undertake the same activities, a proportion of the costs of the military involvement have subsequently been recorded and reported as a humanitarian contribution. Indeed, some donors have an understanding with the military that additional costs incurred by them when responding to humanitarian crises will be met from aid budgets. Recourse to ‘service packages’ can, therefore, affect the volume of funds available for other relief activities.

The UNHCR-led discussion on GSPs has been taking place within the context of a broader international process – the Military and Civil Defence Assets (MCDA) Project, set up in 1991 in response to UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182. The Resolution requested the Department for Humanitarian Affairs (DHA) to develop appropriate arrangements with interested Governments and inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations to ensure rapid access to their emergency relief capacities. In early 1995, as part of the MCDA Project, a task force was set-up under the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (comprising the heads of the UN agencies) to develop a common framework to ensure the most efficient use of donor governments’ military and civil assets, whether in technological (eg Chernobyl), natural or refugee disasters. Operating guidelines issued by the task force emphasise that:

  • the decision to request and accept the assets must be made by humanitarian organisations, not political authorities, and be based solely on humanitarian criteria
  • the assets should be requested only where there are no comparable civilian alternatives and when there is a critical need;
  • the humanitarian operation using the assets must retain its civilian nature and character;
  • countries providing the resources should ensure that they respect the code of conduct and principles of the requesting humanitarian organisation;
  • the large-scale involvement of military personnel in the direct delivery of humanitarian assistance should be avoided, particularly for victims of conflict or political actions.

These are intended to reassure NGOs working in conflict situations, where UN Peace-Keeping forces might also be present, that the deployment of donor assets (namely the military) would not compromise the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian missions and that use of military resources would be exceptional and only considered as a last resort.

On 20 and 21 March of 1996, UNHCR convened a meeting in Geneva to present preliminary conclusions of their consultations on GSPs. The consultations have led to a widening of the debate to include other emergency response mechanisms and, it seems, a greater awareness of the problems associated with the use of military contingents, not least the extremely high cost of such interventions. Most of the response mechanisms developed by interested governments since the consultations began can, in fact, be activated within the framework of a normal response, using standard implementing and funding arrangements, and do not involve the use of the military. For example, UNHCR’s agreement with the Norwegians on health and shelter packages involves a combination of private enterprise, NGO and government sectors, while the German response involves use of the German Red Cross or GTZ. The International Federation of the Red Cross have been developing their own Emergency Response Modules, first tested earlier this year in Nigeria, in response to a meningitis epidemic. All these ‘packages’ can be paid for by UNHCR in the standard way.

Only the Dutch Government’s ‘service package’ involves ‘automatic’ use of their military, for air operations, and a small health unit. The US are prepared to use military assets, but only where they would not be in any danger. The US Government might then use civilian aircraft if requested to assist in an airlift.

Although NGOs do not feature largely in the GSPs prepared so far, UNHCR have been keen to reassure them that their capabilities are not being overlooked. They are currently in the process of compiling a new database of emergency response capacity, and have sent out questionnaires to gather information on the extent of NGO financial, human and material resources.

Where recourse to the military does prove necessary, the lesson learnt from the Great Lakes deployments is that the mission must be clearly defined both in scope and duration and be self-contained in terms of mobilisation and operation (collaboration between governments being welcomed where packages are too large for a single government). As a result of the experiences in Goma, UNHCR have been developing smaller, more rigorously detailed ‘service packages’. When deployed, GSPs would be recorded as extra-budgetary donations in-kind. UNHCR have indicated, however, that they would not wish to accept highly expensive military contributions, even where these were ‘free’, if governments were registering the cost as a contribution. 

UNHCR propose that no use be made of military assets for the security of a refugee operation, as this should remain the state responsibility of the host country. However, although respect for the sovereignty of the country in which they are operating may mean that no other recommendation is politically acceptable, there does appear to be a need for a stronger policy position on the issue of refugee security. The camps in Goma were characterised by extremely high levels of violence – following the cholera and dysentery epidemics, violent death was one of the main causes of mortality. Despite the presence in Goma of well-armed, highly-trained third-country military contingents, agency personnel had to depart the camps at night for fear of attack. Health posts were left unattended, and patient care suffered considerably as a result. It took over nine months for a host country solution to be found – a contingent of Zairian élite guards, funded by UNHCR.

To avoid relief workers being considered as non-neutral actors within a wider international political/military response to conflict, and hence as potential targets for belligerent parties, UNHCR propose that a clear distinction be maintained between military involvement in humanitarian operations, and military involvement in UN peace-keeping activities. No indication is given, however, as to how this is to be achieved.

Donors have strongly emphasised that good coordination amongst UN agencies and GSP providers is essential, to ensure complementarity between the initiatives of different agencies and prevent duplication. They have stressed the need for a single focal point within the UN system, to avoid a situation arising where several agencies submit competing requests for assets. The Military and Civil Defence Unit (MCDU), recently established within DHA as the operational arm of the MCDA Project, will be this focal point. The unit would maintain up-to-date information on all military and civil defence emergency response capacities. This system would ensure that details of GSPs developed for UNHCR would be accessible to other agencies, who could then request a particular package to meet their own needs.

The consultative process appears to have led to an understanding that, for refugee emergencies, military contingents should only be used in very exceptional circumstances. However, should there be a major crisis in the near future, featured on the television screens of the world, governments will come under considerable pressure to ‘do something’, and whether they will be able to resist the temptation to ‘fly the flag’ and send in the military remains to be seen.


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