What’s it like Explaining NGOs to Senior Military types from 40 Countries?

November 30, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

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.

AccountabilityElected and/or elite dominatedTo government (unless there’s been a coup)Multiple: to law, donors, recipients
ReputationLowHigh (mostly – not in Myanmar or Thailand)High (for now – see below)
PoliticsUnder Pressure (death of deference, populism)InsulatedUnder Attack
GoalRe-electionOutcomes – eg victoryRights and Process (inclusivity, decolonization etc)
Role ModelsMachiavelliClausewitzMother Teresa/Gandhi
Decision-makingComplexVertical, with bounded autonomy at local levelOccasional
Use of ViolenceIn ExtremisCore BusinessOpposed

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.


November 30, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. As an ex not very high ranking UK military type who has worked for an NGO for the last 10 years I enjoyed the blog and recognised much in the table. I remember trying to explain to a very senior UK general on a large exercise that he couldn’t just order the UN agencies to do what he wanted them to do as they weren’t actually under his command. We did set up the military/NGO contact group a good 15 or so years ago which I think is still going – Oxfam were instrumental in setting it up so perhaps the quaker influence might be more open than you think!
    I always struggle with the ‘don’t engage with the military’ in humanitarian responses. Whilst in some situations they might well be too politically compromised they can also be relatively disciplined, well equipped with good logistics and instantly available. We don’t have a problem using them to respond to crises in our own country so why so picky in other countries?

    1. Thank you for the interesting blog Duncan, its a topic that we continue to explore with our INGO members at GISF (

      Hi David. Heather here, ex-Oxfam. I remember those early meetings. You will be pleased to know that the NGO Military Contact Group is still going strong, hosted by the British Red Cross. Next meeting in December.

      1. Post
  2. With our over two decades of working in conflict areas, some things stand out in the Gov-ngo relationships. Firstly, if you are perceived as not having an agenda its much easier for you to win space with the military than if you are perceived to have one; secondly, military view of Ngos is that of disorganised bodies moving around haphazardly, unsure of what they are doing. When the military sees them closely a usual remark is: “Ah you plan like us!” Thirdly militaries are generally perceived as hierarchical and rigid organisation distant from the people. In actual fact militaries in conflict areas have a wide discretion to make decisions fit with the local situation. Since they are very keen to win the hearts and minds of the people for a variety of reasons, they tend to respond to local problems very quickly unlike large bureaucracies. Indeed the same military could be very different during peace time and during conflict. In the latter survival instinct drives them closer to the people as they become “problem solvers.” I have often found military personnel becoming very innovative to resolve local problems. Both the military and the ngos are very fond of acronyms but they could mean very different things for them. ” Hh” could mean houses destroyed in an earthquake for a ngo while it could mean houses “hit” for a military. Interestingly we also found that 85% of projects identified by Ngos and the military use to be same as they seem to be using very similar criterion in identifying them. The restriction on ngos in conflict areas because of strict scrutiny has its positive sides too. It has led to the screening out of many organisations that existed on paper but had outsized presence at the conference tables.

    1. Post
  3. Certainly something that ought to be debated more. I would just add though that the separation of the three – governments, military and NGOs – is less distinctive in countries for example like Cambodia. Indeed you can add “private sector” to that mix. Military mindsets are universal in terms of pursuit of goals and that invariably runs counter to notions of consultation and participation. We too tried to encourage greater societal dialogue with security forces in Cambodia who are deployed more often in domestic operations rather than against external threats. That is most prominent when it comes to elections. We did try to convey to all ranks why they should be neutral politically with formal training for them in the 1998 elections. However it seems that too ran counter to their commitment to loyalty, i.e. to ruling party leaders and so it has lapsed for elections ever since. NGOs, the genuine neutral and independent ones, are simply “the enemy”.

    1. Indeed I have found private sector to be quite resilient and helpful in emergencies. It would be convenient, especially in regions of endemic disasters (or conflicts), if there be kept an updated list of particular private businesses that could be very helpful when warranted. Some of course will need payments, while others may not. Illustratively, during a major disaster, an oil company agreed to provide 2 trucks gratis for an arduous transport; and I and colleagues filled them with the required supplies from a supermarket which gave goods at a discount. There are many such examples.

Leave a Reply