A marriage of convenience: the UK military and NGOs

It's an interesting moment for the UK armed forces. Currently their biggest overseas deployment is not military at all, in the normal sense of the world, but humanitarian, as part of Operation Gritrock, fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone. There they are working alongside civilian health staff and NGOs, and under the leadership of a civilian official from the overseas development ministry.

It's a marriage of convenience with benefits for both parties. There's a squeeze on military spending, but the armed forces have been able to do useful work in West Africa, getting valuable experience and good publicity, and the cost (now more than $500 million) has been borne by the aid budget.

Meanwhile aid workers have been impressed by the thoroughness with which the army set about the task it was given. One told IRIN how he had been amazed to walk into a barracks in the north of England and find a full-scale training mock-up of an Ebola treatment centre, heated to tropical temperatures and peopled with real Sierra Leoneans, recruited from the community in the UK to play the part of staff and patients. For him, the end of the military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan offers a unique opportunity for the army to use these resources and this attention to detail for humanitarian purposes.

But military priorities will always come first. A request to the Royal Air Force for cargo planes in the early days after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Phillipines was sympathetically received, but it took six days before one could be spared from operations in Afghanistan; commercially rented planes arrived far more quickly.

One of the more dramatic developments in the response to the Ebola epidemic came in early September, when Médecins Sans Frontières, the humanitarian organisation which has always been the most suspicious of any relationship with the military, called for military and civil defence teams to be sent to the region.

Vickie Hawkins, MSF's Executive Director in the UK, says they did it because they believed that the military would have developed the medical capacity to deal with a biological threat. Although the army built facilities and did a lot of training, there wasn't the immediate, hands-on response MSF had hoped for.

“Either there was no strategic interest in deploying to that extent in West Africa,” says Hawkins, “or perhaps the military just doesn't have that capacity, and in fact our assumptions were misplaced....We would only ever engage with a military force that's supporting humanitarian assistance in a very 'light' way, but it could be helpful for us to understand better their capabilities, particularly in the area of public health.”

Managing expectations

The issue of understanding each other's capabilities arises even in more conventional types of joint deployment, like the UN's Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in the Central African Republic, MINUSCA.

MINUSCA’s deputy head, Diane Corner, says civilians and military are happy to work collaboratively, with peacekeepers responding to alerts raised by civilian agencies, but she does have to manage mutual expectations. “For example we had to send a military recce team into a very remote area of the country, but we had never been there before and we knew there were armed groups operating in the area. So there was quite a high level of risk assessment and information gathering which had to be carried out beforehand, and people needed to be talked through why that had to be done. You have to recognise that it's not always possible to do things immediately.”

The UK has a well-established NGO-Military Contact Group, established fifteen years ago to improve relations between NGOs, the military and relevant government departments such as DFID. At a recent conference in London there was plenty of goodwill, but participants are still exploring the boundaries of their relationship, and what they can realistically expect of each other.

As well as more discussion and communication, there have been suggestions that military/humanitarian cooperation could be improved by joint training, but this is a tricky one.  Because the use of military force is, happily, rare, the military spend far more time training and preparing than they do in actual combat – 95 percent training and 5 percent doing is one informed estimate.  So some NGOs, who are more likely to spend 95 percent of their time doing and only 5 percent training, now get far more invitations to take part in military exercises than they have time for. They can also have the uncomfortable feeling that they are just there as actors in a military-devised scenario which may not match their own training needs – a feeling reinforced by the fact that if they turn down the invitations real actors are sometimes hired to take their place.

David Foldy, a civilian advisor at NATO Joint Force Command in the Netherlands, is involved in planning a major NATO exercise next October. Eighteen international organizations and NGOs have been invited to take part and Foldy says more than half have already accepted. “Any reservations stem from the past when much of the participation was just, 'Come, sit in this box and we'll tell you what to say.'  The military is a large organization, there is a lot of inertia, but they now have input into the scenario, much more input than they had in the past.”

The limits of togetherness

The UK is not like France, where the NGO tradition has its roots in a much more anti-establishment culture, but the success of the joint military/civilian deployment in Sierra Leone may be about to test the limits of public togetherness. There's been the suggestion of a joint homecoming parade for those who worked in Operation Gritrock. The minister for the armed forces, Mark Francois MP, says he personally thinks it's a good idea.

“There's still much to do in Sierra Leone, I don't want to sound complacent for one moment, but if things continue to go well we hope that in the autumn we might be able to have a joint homecoming parade – the military, DFID and the NGOs – all marching collectively into parliament to be thanked, and I think that would set a wonderful example.” It's safe to say that MSF is not likely to be joining that parade.

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