Academic journal article Parameters

Cross Roads or Cross Purposes? Tensions between Military and Humanitarian Providers

Academic journal article Parameters

Cross Roads or Cross Purposes? Tensions between Military and Humanitarian Providers

Article excerpt

In October 2001, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed a conference of humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Washington, D.C. There, he remarked "I want you to know that I have made it clear to my staff here and to all of our ambassadors around the world that I am serious about making sure we have the best relationship with the NGOs who are such a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team." (1) Although his purpose in this address was undoubtedly to build a foundation for a whole-of-nation effort to promote democracy, respect for human rights, and the elimination of terrorism, the secretary's speech had the opposite effect, angering many of the conference's participants who felt that the US Government was seeking to co-opt their organizations by making them mere ancillaries to the war effort.

In 2006 to 2007, Army Lieutenant Colonel James L. Cook was the C J3 (Deputy for Plans and Operations) for Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) 76, covering Regional Command (RC) South and RC East in Afghanistan. His command controlled most of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), and all of the American PRTs operating in those areas of responsibility. Troubling to LTC Cook was the level of redundancy of aid and assistance programs undertaken by the military, government agencies, and the NGO community. He was confused as to why: "as operators, it was so difficult to get everyone to row together" and divide responsibilities to most efficiently and effectively use the limited resources at hand. (2) Although he found levels of access to and cooperation with NGOs varied from project to project and NGO to NGO, Cook felt area-wide communication and cooperation were less than he thought possible and NGOs were (largely) unresponsive to his staff's efforts to streamline the distribution of reconstruction and aid monies.


Like most military and foreign policy professionals, Secretary Powell and LTC Cook have a genuine interest in helping those in need. Alleviating suffering is not their only interest however. The Departments of State and Defense are arms of the United States government and are thus responsible to the nation and its people for advancing their interests as well as for meeting the needs of those affected by tragedy. Indeed, there is a hierarchy of interests that are served by government-sponsored humanitarian missions. First, advance the goals of the nation, and, second, deliver aid to those in need. There is nothing cynical or hypocritical about this hierarchy. As the previous passages reflect, rather than seeing these national and humanitarian ends as conflicting, both Secretary Powell and LTC Cook believed these two goals were in harmony--one supports the other.

As the respect for human rights and dignity from policy practitioners is genuine, they believe their common cause with their humanitarian NGO counterparts should serve as a basis for a smooth and unproblematic partnership. True, the humanitarians might not share their hierarchy of interests, as the latter may privilege the interests of those in need of aid above the interests of the nations that deliver it. But, as the government practitioner sees no conflict between serving these two interests, this fact ought not disrupt prospects for cooperation. The continued unevenness in civil-military relations between militaries and nongovernmental aid-givers, sometimes cooperative, often uncooperative (even hostile), thus continues to confuse and frustrate government agents.

In fact, the root of such problems stem from the fact that many in the policy community fail to appreciate that humanitarians also have a hierarchy of interests. Humanitarians have historically been as concerned with humanitarianism as an end as much as a means, because the practice of humanitarianism redeems the aid-giver as much as it comforts the recipient--or, more precisely, the aid-giver is redeemed through providing comfort to others. …

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