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Humanitarian Exchange 56: Civil-military coordination in humanitarian action

Time (GMT +00) 14:00 16:00
Hero image description: MINUSTAH Military Personnel Assists Hurricane Victims Image credit:UN Photo/Marco Dormino Image license:Creative Commons



  • Simone Haysom - Research Officer, Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI and author of lead article
  • Jenny McAvoy - Director of Protection, InterAction
  • Lauren Greenwood - Researcher on British military culture


  • Joel Charny - Vice President for Humanitarian Policy and Practice, InterAction


  • Victoria Metcalfe
  • Ruben Stewart


  • Colonel Hans-Jürgen Kasselmann - Director of the Civil-Military Co-operation Centre of Excellence


  • Wendy Fenton - Coordinator, Humanitarian Practice Network

Simone Haysom, a researcher in the ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) and author of HE56’s lead article, opened the discussion by outlining some of the key trends and issues currently shaping the debate around and implementation of civil-military coordination in humanitarian action. She emphasised that, although civil-military coordination is an issue of standing relevance, its importance has come into focus more recently as a result of three factors:

  1. An increase in the toll natural disasters were taking, if not in their incidence, and an expected increase due to climate change and coastal urbanisation. This has drawn the spotlight to natural disaster response, in regions where national militaries are considered primary responders;
  2. The rapid proliferation of NGOs. This is a particular problem in dialogue and coordination processes;
  3. An increase in the use of integrated approaches, stabilisation operations, and whole of government or comprehensive approaches. These are now the principle frameworks for a range of bilateral and multilateral international interventions in fragile, conflict-affected and post-conflict states.

She indicated the existence of real gaps in the civil-military coordination guidelines and serious capacity issues on both sides as military actors become more involved in humanitarian responses. Many humanitarian organisations have lost sight of the original intentions of civil-military coordination – which is to improve the humanitarian response and outcomes for affected people. They are often either dominated by negative past experiences, eschewing contact of any kind with military actors, or have embraced the military in ways that have compromised the position of more neutral agencies. Military actors face challenges derived from high rates of turnover and rapid rotations, low levels of understanding of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and how they work, and difficulties interacting in an effective way with a non-hierarchical and seemingly anarchic humanitarian community which often doesn’t agree within itself. These findings are outlined in more detail in the Working Paper published as part of HPG’s project Civil-military coordination: the search for common ground.

Victoria Metcalfe, the co-editor of HE56 and former HPG Research Fellow who spearheaded this project, continued by describing how the protection of civilians (POC)  is situated within civil-military coordination. While recognising that interaction between the humanitarian community and military/peacekeeping actors can pose numerous challenges, she argued that there was a particularly strong rationale for engagement on the issue of protection of civilians:

  1. The humanitarian imperative. A sustained dialogue between international military actors and humanitarian actors is necessary to ensure more effective support for affected communities and greater respect for international humanitarian law (IHL);
  2. Protection of civilians has become a shared objective, although is often understood differently by different actors. POC has been on the agenda of key humanitarian actors for some time now, is increasingly included in peacekeeping mandates, and is linked with the objective of ‘human security’ often included in stabilisation missions;
  3. The complex set of dynamics associated with risks to civilians cannot be addressed by any one group of actors. Early interaction between military/peacekeeping and humanitarians is essential to ensure that they can develop complementary approaches to addressing protection risks;
  4. In the context of significant changes in the role and way that peacekeeping or military interventions function, there has been a lot of discussion around the impact that different types of intervention will have upon humanitarian outcomes. Some humanitarian actors have wanted to disengage completely, but protection of civilians requires more interaction rather than less, on both the operational and strategic levels.

She outlined some major obstacles, including the different priorities of humanitarian and military actors, the fraught question of information-sharing, and the diversity of views within the humanitarian community itself not only on the question of engagement with security actors but on a range of issues. While other challenges including the processes for determining the parameters or boundaries for interaction and the nature and scope of the protocols were noted she emphasised that humanitarian actors need to find a way of engaging with the military without compromising their neutrality and independence.

Joel Charny, Vice President for Humanitarian Policy and Practice, InterAction, who co-authored the article with Jenny McAvoy, Interaction’s Director of Protection, on negotiating  guidelines for relations between US Armed forces and NGOs, noted that with its yearly budget of $650 billion and more than two million personnel (both civilian and military), the US Department of Defence is the largest institution in the world. Following the initiation of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, humanitarian actors were placed under great pressure to contribute to what was seen as a unified effort and patriotic duty in prosecuting these conflicts. A concerted effort was required on the part of NGOs and other humanitarian actors to resist political co-option and assert their own position - an effort that has not  been entirely realised.

He outlined two fundamental challenges to implementing more effective civil-military coordination in the American context:

  1. The sheer size of the US military. Although the Guidelines for Relations between US Armed Forces and Non-Governmental Humanitarian Organizations in Hostile or Potentially Hostile Environments were approved by the former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, ensuring that they permeate all levels of the military hierarchy is enormously difficult.
  2. The whole of government approach. Often the most severe violations of the guidelines are perpetrated by civilians. For instance, civilian leadership may insist that members of the armed forces wear civilian clothing when undertaking non-military activities, even though the military itself is aware of the sensitivities of doing this.

Jenny McAvoy responded to a question on what incentives there are for the US military to improve its coordination with humanitarian actors, given its size, budget and influence. She emphasised that there are those within the Department of Defense (DOD) that believe the military should refocus on core competencies and resist its activities being spread across a wider range of areas. This stance is partly a result of fiscal pressures in the United States, which has ng constrained all US government budgets including that of the DOD. She noted a strong desire on the part of US military officers to engage with the humanitarian community – to enter into dialogue, seek training,  and involve them in simulations. She argued that the problem was not so much one of the incentives for civil-military coordination but whether efforts in that direction will have any significant effect.

Jenny emphasised the needs to understand the cultural and strategic shift that has taken the US military into an increasing number of places and non-conflict situations. She placed the origins of this shift within the executive branch of the US government citing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s testimony on Benghazi. Tensions internal to other countries are being seen as a threat to US national security; the need for a military presence, seen as a break upon extremist forces, is increasingly justified by the military’s role in undertaking relief, POC, or other civilian activity. This has implications with regard to humanitarians and military having shared objectives in relation to protection activities, because military missions that use POC as a way of justifying deployment are often not underpinned by a clear understanding of international norms or key actors.

Responding to a question from the chair, Joel Charny argued that the guidelines are still valuable in such contexts and will continue to be as they outline some of basic underlying premises of dialogue between humanitarian and military actors. However, he also acknowledged that the situation is more complicated than the guidelines are able to reflect and that it was important for the US military to see its approach in a more global context, for instance in relation to guidance developed by the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC). Greater emphasis on IHL and in both the military and humanitarian sectors is considered an important starting point.

Colonel Hans-Jürgen Kasselmann, Director of the Civil-Military Co-operation Centre of Excellence (CCOE), described the Centre’s key areas of work. Responsible for helping review and improve procedures and policy for civil-military cooperation for NATO, the UN, the European Union and other sponsoring nations, the CCOE is a multinational effort which emphasises knowledge transfer and training. Support is primarily oriented towards the military side, but also involves approaching the humanitarian and broader civilian community in order to improve the response to complex emergencies. As the article on the CCOE in HE56 explains, the organisation has recently been involved in reviewing NATO’s doctrine on civil-military coordination.

The CCOE works in various ways at a range of levels to promote better civil-military coordination inhumanitarian action:

  1. Encouraging a mindset shift within the military towards recognition of the necessity of civil-military cooperation. This means activities at the policy level as well as at implementation or technical level;
  2. Reviewing and revising guidelines and doctrines. For instance, the CCOE is an integral part of the process for reviewing the use of Military and Civil Defence Assets (MCDA) and is working to make these relevant to situations of complexity;
  3. Training and education. Taking a holistic approach to training and education, the aim is to produce a paradigm shifte throughout the military hierarchy, not only at the top levels.

Lauren Greenwood, a social anthropologist who has researched military culture, analysed how British military culture has affected attempts to engage with non-military actors in ‘population-centred’ counter-insurgency (COIN) and stabilisation operations. As explained in her HE56 article, there are two main challenges, both of which are exacerbated by high personnel turnover:

  1. Within the population-centred COIN approach, the emphasis on ‘soft’ or ‘non-kinetic’ skills such as cultural awareness, attention to long-term consequences and consideration of how to increase the population’s sense of security and progress, involves intangible objectives that differ from the military’s preference for clear, concrete and rapid results. The process can undermine traditional combat skills and therefore encounter resistance;
  2. The effectiveness of training on population-centred COIN and stabilisation operations is often heavily dependent upon the individuals and personalities in a given chain of command. If these approaches are not accepted they will not take root in the theatre of conflict.

Drawing on field research with the British Military Stabilisation Support Group (MSSG), active at the interface between the wider military and coordination with civilian actors, she described how members of this group must be able to perform as combat soldier in order to gain credibility but also need ‘soft’ skills to be active in the new population-centred COIN. These challenges have heightened the tension between tradition and change within the British military, and have tested identities, boundaries and roles. The tensions arising arise from the military interpretation of masculinity, and the need in COIN operations to re-negotiate this from the kinetically oriented combat soldier to the more ambiguous masculinity of the military facilitator; of ‘common sense’ where military reliance on rational decision-making by doctrine is replaced by complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty, and focus on restraint,; and of leadership, where military leaders have to balance strength and authority with sensitivity and cultural awareness. MSSG members, as a result,  are now often referred to as ‘hybrid soldiers’, changing the boundaries of what it means to be a soldier in the British military.

Ruben Stewart, co-author of an article on civil-military coordination in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), spoke of the coordination approach adopted by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) following Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. After this conflict revealed the inadequacies of systems in place during high intensity conflict, the IDF revised their civil-military coordination mechanisms. Staff from the unit responsible, COGAT (Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories), were moved into military units in order to be able to manage coordination. Training in the Protection of Civilians (POC) is now compulsory for any officer who will be directing military operations meaning that eventually all officers will have received this training.

Asked what effect these changes had upon the conduct of Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012, he described how civil-military staff were deployed within hours of the operation commencing. Roughly 25 Humanitarian Affairs Officers (HAOs) were mobilised, for whom the IDF requested a UN refresher course prior to the expected ground invasion which did not ultimately occur. He emphasised that coordination was possible because of the acceptance of the parties to the conflict and the knowledge that the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is in dialogue with both sides; being able to demonstrate that as humanitarian actors they adhere to principles is essential.

Discussion returned to the multiplicity of humanitarian actors and the diversity of views and approaches within it on interaction with military actors. Speakers and audience members alike agreed that this lack of coherence is a major obstacle to more effective dialogue and engagement. Discussions also reflected on the role of national donor agencies and their position vis-à-vis government and military objectives, focusing on the position of USAID. Another key theme was the question of leadership and the role of civilian leaders, notably non-military arms of governments, in determining how the military is positioned. Calls were made for a better understanding of IHL across both humanitarian and military/peacekeeping communities, more engagement around the issue of protection, and the continued development of spaces in which civilian and military actors can enter into dialogue.


Civil-military coordination in humanitarian crises is a controversial issue, particularly for humanitarian actors. There is anxiety about co-option and contagion by the military, about trade-offs between enduring political solutions and long-term basic assistance and about the relationship between principles and pragmatism in the delivery of aid.

In the midst of these debates the original purpose of civil-military coordination - to have a structured dialogue that enables more effective and principled delivery of assistance to affected populations - tends to be forgotten. With growing interest on the part of militaries to be involved in the provision of assistance there is both a need to revisit the basic intentions of civil-military dialogue and to address the gaps that past practice and current guidance do not cover.

This event will launch the 56th edition of Humanitarian Exchange the theme of which is civil-military coordination in humanitarian action. Drawing on the articles in this issue and recent research undertaken by ODI's Humanitarian Policy Group, as well as their own experience, speakers will discuss the barriers to coordination - both real and perceived - and whether progress has been or can be made in resolving these.

Refreshments will be served from 15:30.