Got a grilling from an unusual audience (for me) last week. 100+ senior military officers (colonels and above) from 40 countries, attending what amounts to a UK-sponsored ‘military Masters’ (my words) – a year-long course on strategy for future leaders. Can’t be more specific as it was Chatham House rule. My task was to introduce them to the wonderful world of NGOs.
I’ll spare you the general introduction and pick up on the last few slides on the challenges of civilian-military coordination – a big topic for both sides, especially in a range of humanitarian settings, where soldiers are involved both in fighting and increasingly, in helping civilians. A really useful 2012 literature review (any chance of an update?) by the Humanitarian Policy Group identifies some of these as
- Blurred lines: if soldiers are taking part in humanitarian activities like handing out food or medicines, or aid workers are hitching rides on military vehicles, it can easily lead to the two being conflated, with serious risks to humanitarian workers and partners.
- Mutual distrust: with such different cultures and values, it’s easy for each side to ‘other’ each other – useless bleeding hearts v trigger-happy thugs. One ex-soldier told me ‘military types often struggle to see NGOs as anything other than potential ’force multipliers’.
- Poor coordination (among and between): especially in really massive emergencies, the militaries of different countries don’t always coordinate with each other, and neither does the influx of NGOs. Then there’s the lack of coordation between the two groups, in the middle of a fast moving and chaotic crisis. i.e. an unholy mess.
- Expanding military remits: in recent years, militaries have got more involved in humanitarian response, sometimes as part of a wider effort to win ‘hearts and minds’. See blurred lines.
- Underestimating the role of national militaries: this one was interesting. In places like Pakistan, the main role in responding to major weather events is played by the Pakistani military, but both the international soldiers and the INGOs sometimes fail to grasp this.
- Incompatible aims: eg the military pursuing stability, and the INGOs seeking respect for human rights. Sometimes you can argue that the two overlap, but not always.
- Cultural differences eg language (‘protection’ means very different things, as far as I can work out. For NGOs, it means protecting almost any right; for soldiers, it’s more about protection from injury or death); hierarchy (militaries like them, NGOs don’t – even when they still have them); process (see hierarchy: militaries focus on outcomes, NGOs also worry a lot about how you get there.
I thought this graphic from the HPG report was helpful in summarizing when civmil (as its known) is easy and when it isn’t, basically according to the level of conflict.
Thirdly, I was told to keep it light, so spent an enjoyable 30 minutes trying to summarize the basic differences between governments, militaries and NGOs – an exercise in tongue-in-cheek gross generalization. Here you go.
|Elected and/or elite dominated
|To government (unless there’s been a coup)
|Multiple: to law, donors, recipients
|High (mostly – not in Myanmar or Thailand)
|High (for now – see below)
|Under Pressure (death of deference, populism)
|Outcomes – eg victory
|Rights and Process (inclusivity, decolonization etc)
|Vertical, with bounded autonomy at local level
|Use of Violence
The lecture lasted 45m, the Q&A an hour. They used slido – v tech savvy these military types – which allows you to cluster questions and seems to curtail the urge for ‘more of a comment than a question’, so maybe worth copying? Detailed, intelligent and friendly questions on how NGOs prioritize their efforts, what role they play in electoral democracies, how they deal with rising powers and/or authoritarian governments and lots on ethics and integrity. I felt like I’d been through a viva by the end of it.
Overall, my impression was that a meeting of minds should be possible on a number of areas (although a Quaker-influenced organization like Oxfam is never going to agree with them on the use of force). I left wondering if we should be having more such conversations. After all, senior military figures stick around a long time (ever though they change jobs a lot within the military), have influence and the ear of government, and they don’t get rotated out altogether as ministers or senior civil servants are.