Sunday, January 24, 2010

Military humanitarians: Public health saviors or invaders?

Involving the military in humanitarian response has long been controversial, and recent events in Haiti raise many questions about the effectiveness, and appropriateness of using soldiers and weapons of war in such situations. With the devastation of the local UN mission, which would normally have spearheaded the coordination of response efforts, The US military’s role has become central in Haiti.

The military specializes in logistics, moving people and supplies in difficult terrain with ships, aircraft and other vehicles. They can rapidly deploy established chains of command, coordination, and communication. But many of their strengths may also be weaknesses in the humanitarian context. For example:

  1. Coordinating the efforts of multiple organizations is always challenging, and strong command and control within an organization does not equal good coordination with others. The military has certain ways of doing things, and perceived priorities that may not align with other humanitarian organizations, or humanitarian principles and practices in general. Not only may they lack the ability to allow others into the command and control structure, but they may be loathe to assume the appropriate mindset of humanitarian responders.
  2. The military’s law-and-order role is a case in point. US military assets are being tasked with certain peacekeeping operations, alongside the distribution of relief supplies. But tasks such as stopping looters may not be essential. While the vision of people hauling stolen food, electronics, home supplies and auto parts from damaged stores may appear unsightly under normal situations, after a disaster of this scale we may be better off simply letting folks vent their frustrations (and satisfy their hunger) with “stolen” goods. The need for “peace keepers” also implies an element of danger that may not be real, but may still hamper relief efforts as organizations consider security needs. Generally, soldiers deployed after disasters are only there as a show of force. Look closely and you usually notice that their weapons are unloaded.
  3. What are the unintended consequences of military efficiency? This may apply to other responders as well, but the news that the military had recently distributed 150,000 bottles of water and 100,000 prepackaged military meals raised a couple of questions. Are 1 liter bottles the most efficient means of mass-distributing water? And what happens to those 150,000 bottles once they are emptied? Since the meals are also packaged in heavy plastic, we are talking about introducing mass amounts of extra plastic into an environment already overburdened with the detritus of mass destruction.
  4. The military answers to their government, meaning that their efforts are inherently political in nature, intimately tied to the interests of the flag they work beneath. To maintain legitimacy, shouldn’t humanitarian efforts be largely un-political? This seems necessary to ensure that effectiveness and distribution isn’t at least perceived as being influenced by the political palatability of recipients.

While its certainly handy to have the tools of the military at your disposal, it can also look a lot like an invasion when soldiers dominate the landscape of humanitarian response.

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