Many humanitarians, myself among them, have long decried the slow encroachment by military organizations in to what we call ‘humanitarian space.’ And for good reason: It has been our repeated experience on the ground that when soldiers engage in what looks and feels to civilians like humanitarian work, it blurs the distinction between us (the humanitarians) and them (the soldiers). And that blurring of distinction almost always has wildly negative consequences in the real world. Consequences that can range from aid programs simply being ineffective, all the way up to the lives of aid recipients and aid workers being put at risk.
And so it is easy to feel a sense of ominous, unspoken threat as we encounter uniformed, combat-ready military personnel while going about the work of humanitarian work, from Haiti to Afghanistan to the Sahel.
A few months ago I sat strapped in at cruising altitude for several hours next to a high-ranking officer in a well-known military organization. As passengers do, we talked about our respective jobs and lives. Through the course of our conversation it became clear to me that despite his uniform and rank, this man saw himself as a “humanitarian” (his self-descriptor). He spoke with obvious pride about his experience supporting in different ways humanitarian operations in some of the high profile disasters of recent memory – disasters where I’d also been personally part of the combined response, and where in at least one case had personally benefitted from the support provided by his organization.
While I did not and do not budge on the critical importance of maintaining the clearest possible distinction between “military” and “humanitarian” personnel on the ground, in the field, I came away from that conversation challenged to think more deeply about the nature and quality of interaction between humanitarians and soldiers, between NGOs and armies.
In particular I think that as humanitarians, we need to recognize and come to better grips with the following:
“Humanitarianism” is increasingly the mandate of military organizations. Whether it’s the 50,000 Chinese troops deployed to Sichuan for search, rescue and cleanup following massive earthquake of 2008, the USMC deployed to protect the peace in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, Brazilian MINUSTAH maintaining a secure perimeter at food distributions in Port-au-Prince, or Indonesian soldiers directly handing relief supplies to tsunami survivors in Aceh, we have to recognize that military actors are in “our” space to stay. It is part of their formal mandate, written into both budgets and “doctrine.” And it is part of their organizational cultures. It is also now past the point of being a “good” or a “bad” thing: It is simply a reality that is.
We need to understand The Military, but we don’t. While it’s probably true that most military actors lack a nuanced understanding of the aid world and the complexities of many of the places where we work, we also fail to understand them. Further, to the extent that military organizations see themselves as having a humanitarian mandate, they are our constituents, just like host governments, beneficiaries, and donors. We need to understand them, but we don’t. We don’t speak their language, nor do we understand their community (how many of us would know the difference, for example, between a Colonel and a Lieutenant Colonel?). We need to begin to put the same kind of effort into understanding The Military that we put into understanding The Community. And in the same way, on a personal level, we need to extend to our counterparts in uniform the same kinds of graces that we extend to those of other cultures with whom we so often claim to be so close.
The Aid Industry currently lacks the tools for engaging with the current CIVMIL reality. I’m not talking about more InterAction working groups or more workshops. I am talking about practical, reality-based engagement. I do not suggest that we recant our sacred ideals of impartiality and neutrality, but I do suggest that we adopt a less “us vs. them” approach to CIVMIL. We need, as a community, and as individual humanitarian organizations, to do more reflexive thinking on what sharing the humanitarian space means practically. There are too few examples to-date, and far too few actually being shared (although this one is sort of headed in the right direction). We can adopt stances of principled pragmatism and we can acknowledge those areas where our shared interests are shared interests without compromising our integrity as humanitarian NGOs. We can learn ourselves and teach our staff how to behave around military actors and engage interpersonally with military personnel.
If it ever even was truly “ours”, we can no longer delude ourselves about being sole owner/occupants of “humanitarian space.” As we increasingly come to occupy the same physical and conceptual spaces as uniformed military organizations it is important that we do not compromise our humanitarian stance on such things as the Code of Conduct or the humanitarian principles of humanity and independence. But it is also time to recognize that the world is changing around us, and that we need to adapt.