New research exposes long-standing challenges to civilian-military coordination in humanitarian crises

The Watson Institute’s Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Studies (CHRHS) and the Naval War College’s Civilian-Military Humanitarian Response Program (HRP) unveiled new research, which addresses structural deficiencies in and problems with civilian-military coordination in humanitarian crises. With funds from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, CHRHS and HRP began in 2018 to investigate many of the challenges that have long stymied military and humanitarian actors globally. This report is intended to serve as a catalyst for further research and analysis.

“With little research in how humanitarian and military actors work in these environments,” said CHRHS Director Adam Levine, “participants in our past Civilian-Military Humanitarian Response Workshops identified high-impact questions whose answers will drive the development of U.N. guidelines: What are the best mechanisms for the best outcomes? What creates more harm than good? What are civilians’ perceptions of these actors? Are certain roles better for military actors than humanitarian actors?” 

Given the widespread inconsistencies about which groups are considered “military” or ‘humanitarian” actors, it’s no wonder that lack of coordination runs rampant.

Four research themes

Based on extensive interviews and exhaustive literature searches, the research evaluated these over-arching issues:

  • What are the best ways to overcome contemporary challenges in humanitarian-military relations?
  • What is the legal responsibility of a state indirectly involved in conflict to provide medical support for affected civilians and combatants?
  • What are the community perceptions of the military response to epidemics in Nigeria?
  • What risks do civilians face when information is shared during civilian-military coordination of humanitarian activities?

Every country on earth has responded to COVID-19 with a mix of civilian and military actors; the pandemic highlighted the lack of guidelines for coordinating such efforts.

Adam Levine Director, Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Studies

Disasters demonstrate deficiencies

“Every country on earth has responded to COVID-19 with a mix of civilian and military actors; the pandemic highlighted the lack of guidelines for coordinating such efforts,” said Levine.

Even before the pandemic, other natural and manmade disasters demonstrated the need for evidence-based guidelines and best practices, especially given the ever-growing number of multiple foreign militaries responding, with humanitarian actors, to any individual disaster, including Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Experts couldn’t identify why Sierra Leone’s military response to treating Ebola patients was effective or how to prevent future civilian and humanitarian workers’ deaths, which had occurred in war-torn Syria and Yemen, due to poor military-humanitarian coordination. Levine offered one striking example: When he was running a field hospital in Haiti after the earthquake, Black Hawk helicopters began dropping off patients – with no advance warning – who had been on the USNS Comfort (a U.S. Navy hospital ship) and couldn’t be taken back to the United States. 

Rob Grace, a researcher and Affiliated Fellow at CHRHS, authored one of four reports that comprise Civilian-Military Coordination in Humanitarian Response, Expanding the Evidence Base, the nearly 200-page research report. Interviews of 38 individuals with military or humanitarian expertise revealed widespread consensus for the need for improved and strengthened coordination. Many humanitarian actors “felt they judged military actors too harshly or viewed them through a negative lens,” and acknowledged their own shortcomings and mistakes in the field, said Grace.

Interviewees’ perceptions enlightening

Interviews for the full report reveal some inherent challenges: 

  • “For many humanitarians…we are the good ones, and they [the military] are the ones killing people. But to engage in a dialogue, you need to overcome those kinds of prejudices.”
  • “NGO organizational structure is very different from that of the military…NGO personnel have little patience with military hierarchies. They tend to resent military officers’ typical question: ‘who’s in charge?’” 
  • “[B]ad behavior of the military can make people reject medical aid of the military in a pandemic situation.”
  • “Human rights violations including sexual and gender-based violence.”

Besides Grace, report authors include Sangeetha Yogendran, a CHRHS Global Fellow and Ph.D. Fellow, Human Rights Centre, Faculty of Law and Criminology, University of Ghent; Chris Kwaja, Ph.D., a CHRHS Global Fellow, and Lecturer, Centre for Peace and Security Studies, Modibbo Adama University of Technology, in Nigeria; Daniel Olivieri, who is pursuing a Doctor of Medicine and a Master of Public Affairs degree at Brown University; and Naysan Adlparvar, lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. 

CHRHS introduces new program; research outcomes

On Sept. 17, CHRHS and HRP virtually presented their research at their first Research Symposium on Civilian-Military Humanitarian Coordination, where they announced CHRHS’ first funded thematic program in Civilian-Military Humanitarian Coordination, thanks to initial funding from the Robert Dudley Harrington Charitable Foundation. “With collaborations from the HRP, Levine said, “this program will provide opportunities to engage students and others in new courses, lecture series, simulations and symposia and bring this research to larger audiences, including students, researchers and policy-makers.”

“There’s real impact behind what the Watson Institute and the War College are doing, said Dave Polatty, professor and director of the HRP. “Having the Watson Institute, with its incredibly diverse expertise, partnering with a leading military institution…allows us to go incredibly deep with research and academic collaborations that explore some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity. The results of our combined research, educational collaborations and simulations are therefore much more meaningful and rigorous.” 

“This niche area at Brown University exists nowhere else; we’ve developed the most expertise and we are continuing to pursue high-priority, cutting-edge research,” said Levine. “As a co-sponsor of our workshops, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has been a big supporter of our work, so we anticipate that it and many humanitarian and military organizations will use this research to begin implementing positive changes.” Additionally, Levine anticipates that academics around the world will build on these findings and further develop evidence-based research.

Of the report’s recommendations, Polatty referenced both Grace’s new framework for thinking about how coordination can impact efficiency and effectiveness and Adlparvar’s humanitarian notification systems research to prevent and eliminate attacks against humanitarians in conflict settings. These research recommendations added Polatty, “are certainly going to help the humanitarian sector moving forward and will be a springboard for current and future collaborative research the Naval War College is doing and will continue to do with the Watson Institute.”