The importance of civil-military dialogue

September 2, 2015
Amelia B. Kyazze
Search and rescue teams in Nepal

Within six hours of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake striking Nepal on 25 April this year, the first Indian Air Force aircraft carrying search and rescue teams arrived in the country. In the following days and weeks, 17 more countries deployed military assets – such as helicopters and military medical teams — to contribute to the humanitarian response. Coordinated by the Nepali military, these assets allowed for a higher number of rescue and relief flights, and provided vital capacity in debris and road clearance.

Military involvement in humanitarian action is not unique to this year’s response in Nepal. Last year’s Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines saw 21 foreign governments deploy substantial military assets, such as aircraft carriers, helicopters, bulldozers and field hospitals. The use of military assets in humanitarian response to sudden onset disasters is becoming the norm, particularly in Asia.

The trend goes beyond sudden onset emergencies. For the first time in its history, MSF called for military involvement in the response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. The US armed forces played a dominant role in Liberia, deploying 2800 logistical and engineering troops, who built 17 treatment centres and trained hundreds of local and international health care workers. In Sierra Leone, the UK military provided command, control and coordination structures, as well as medical and logistical support.

When it works well, military involvement in humanitarian relief can dramatically increase the effectiveness of humanitarian relief. UK Navy ships helped secure access to hard-to-reach islands in the Philippines struck by Typhoon Haiyan. After the first Nepal earthquake, national army helicopters helped position Canadian Red Cross teams attempting to establish health units in remote mountain villages – and helped evacuate them after the second.

These deployments take coordination, communication, and mutual understanding of the capacities and limitations of different organisations. Indeed, a member of the UN’s Disaster Assessment and Coordination team deployed to Nepal went so far as to state ‘Humanitarian-military coordination is not a sideshow to be tolerated by the humanitarian community, but is an essential, extremely important tool of immediate response’ Arjun Katoch, ‘Initial response to the Nepal Quake,” Crisis Response Journal 10:4, June 2015 .

In conflict situations, such as the current one in Yemen, civil-military coordination may not be possible or even desirable. The objectives of military and humanitarian actors will often be very divergent. It might be entirely inappropriate for military and humanitarian actors to work together, for fear of blurring the distinct neutrality and independence of humanitarian relief. Any civil-military dialogue, such as it is possible, will often be limited to sharing information of humanitarian convoy movements with warring parties, in an attempt to ensure a distinction between civilian and military targets.

The NGO-Military Contact Group (NCMG)

Although sometimes desirable, civil-military dialogue is by no means straightforward and communication channels must be purposefully cultivated. The need for improving communication and understanding between military personnel and humanitarians led to the creation of the UK-based NGO-Military Contact Group (NMCG).

Established in 2000, the NMCG serves as a neutral platform for civil-military dialogue. During the period of active UK military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the NMCG hosted difficult but important discussions about the importance of independent humanitarian action and concerns around military-delivered humanitarian relief. These discussions increased mutual understanding between NGOs, the Red Cross Movement, and the UK Government departments involved in decision-making, such as DFID, FCO and the MOD. All parties subsequently had a better appreciation of each other’s respective priorities and approaches.

The NMCG continues today with over 70 active members. We host regular meetings on situations where civil-military relations is an important consideration or a significant challenge. The group brings together field operatives, policymakers and those teaching the doctrine and policies to new recruits to both military and humanitarian organisations, including those about to deploy in unfamiliar terrain.

Lessons from a recent NMCG conference

A recent NMCG conference, titled Challenge and Innovation: Civil-Military Relations in a Changing World, brought together over 150 members of the UK and French Armed Forces, NGOs, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, Government, and academia to debate civil-military relations today and into the future. A range of issues were presented, including relations with sovereign governments, interactions with non-state armed groups, and the role innovation plays in both military and humanitarian responses.

While there was no aim for consensus amongst the very diverse group, some salient points emerged from the debates, which should be considered by civilian and military communities aiming to improve humanitarian outcomes:

  • Context is key. Each crisis requires strong analysis of the situation-at-large and the constituent actors. It is important to develop a deep understanding of the role and capability of the sovereign state. It is equally vital to examine the role of non-state armed groups who may be constantly adapting and innovating. No blueprint from one crisis will work in the next.
  • Militaries need to be honest about their capacity to respond to humanitarian needs. More frank discussions are needed about the capacity of militaries that may be deployed in response to biological threats or other major crises, like Ebola. While understanding some of this material is sensitive, sharing information ahead of time would help humanitarian planning considerably.
  • Civil-military dialogue aiming to improve humanitarian outcomes should include science. There are benefits for the civil-military community in enhanced scientific-military-civilian humanitarian discussions about innovation, managing risk, and planning. These may have to be conducted well away from sensitive contexts. Innovations from both the civilian and military sectors must focus on addressing humanitarian needs, not just fitting a product to a situation.
  • Successful organisations foster institutional and individual courage. Sometimes the right decision by courageous people will be truly life-saving. Innovation specialists and civil-military dialogue could also examine the responses of people when faced with new challenges or unconventional situations, focusing on what behaviours result in positive and innovative solutions to intractable humanitarian problems.

What was also interesting about the conference was the shift in culture. As proceedings came to an end, there appeared to be growing assumption that the involvement of the military in responses to major disasters can bring tangible benefits to affected people. It was also felt that informed and reality-based dialogue between military and civilian organisations helps us to deliver on our respective mandates.

However, there remains real caution and a tendency to stress the limits of dialogue in situations of armed conflict. Many practitioners were concerned that a blurring of the lines or confusion between military and civilian workers remains an important factor in why threats against humanitarian workers continue to persist in insecure contexts.

For organisations dedicated to improving the humanitarian outcomes for people in crisis, a renewed and deeper engagement with civil-military relations may be necessary. For these important – and at times difficult – discussions, the NMCG stands by to serve as a platform for dialogue.

For the summary note of our 2015 conference please click here: 2015 NMCG conference report

Amelia B. Kyazze is Senior Humanitarian Policy Adviser at the British Red Cross, and Chair of the NMCG since 2011. She has over 15 years’ experience in humanitarian policy, including in Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur and many other places.


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