(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Civilian-military coordination works, despite challenges

U.S. Marines protect food distributions from possible looting at the golf course in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
UN Photo/Marco Dormino

Haiti is the latest example of humanitarian agencies and the military working together to provide relief after a disaster – and lessons are still being learnt.

Although civil-military co-operation (CIMIC) has become an integral part of the response to large-scale disasters, every scenario is different, Lt-Col Denis Sevaistre, specialist in CIMIC and civil emergency planning with the French Army, told IRIN.

A 2008 study, The effectiveness of foreign military assets in natural disaster response, by the Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute, together with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), highlighted the advantages and pitfalls of involving the military in relief operations following major disasters.

The study looked at military responses to the cyclone in Mozambique (2000), tropical storm Jeanne in Haiti (2004), the Indian Ocean tsunami (2004) and the Pakistan earthquake (2005), and based its findings on indicators including timeliness, appropriateness, efficiency, coordination and costs.

The study found that foreign military aid was generally effective in supporting governments and the relief effort, helping to speed up the disaster response and recovery efforts by filling civilian gaps in technical capacity.

It also highlighted that coordinating needs assessment was crucial, not only at the start of the operation but also at the end. In the case of the Pakistan earthquake, for example, there was very little coordination of requests for, and offers of, foreign military assets in the early stages of the earthquake response; some assistance arrived that was not strictly required, in other cases what was required was not available.

Challenges to military involvement:

• Civilian humanitarian actors must agree to having military assets - personnel, equipment and expertise - operating in what is traditionally their domain;

• Military actors are frequently not included in humanitarian needs assessment activities;

• Lack of understanding of different rules of engagement and modus operandi can create confusion between civilian actors and the military; and

• Issues over the appropriateness and coordination of military assets deployed.

Alan Butterfield, chief of the Civil-Military Coordination Section (CMCS) at OCHA in Geneva, told IRIN that in Haiti military support had been crucial because the magnitude of the catastrophe overwhelmed response capabilities of national and international organizations on the ground.

Military units were mostly used for search and rescue, but also contributed to rehabilitation of roads and infrastructure, medical emergencies, water and sanitation and to re-establish main communication systems.

"Failure to respond adequately can be devastating to the affected communities and can undermine the efforts of all international actors involved," Butterfield said. "In particular, during a large-scale humanitarian crisis, coordination among relief agencies is essential so that efforts are not duplicated and resources go where they are most needed."


• This article was amended on 28 January 2010, correcting the location of the 2005 earthquake

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