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Guest Article: The Changing Landscape of Civilian and Military Collaboration in Conflict Prevention

Guest Contributor: Nisha Iswaran

Civilian and military actors have operated together in hostile environments for many years, delivering crucial work to save the lives of those caught in crises. Historically, militaries, NGOs and political actors have most frequently worked closely together in the field of humanitarian crises, with activities usually coordinated to deliver aid and assistance by over-arching national or international organisations taking the lead in planning. Civilian and military efforts also co-exist in conflict-affected and post-conflict environments, a theme set to increase with future military policy focusing more on upstream conflict prevention. In this setting, where needs are often longer term compared with a humanitarian crisis, differences in language, culture and priorities have translated into stove piped working. This uncoordinated delivery of support to a country within, as well as between, donor governments can result in overlapping, uncomplimentary and even conflicting projects potentially causing long-term harm.

Military plans in the aid sector

International interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq saw military operations taking place alongside civilian development efforts on a large and long-term scale. However, as recent public opinion has shown, the appetite of western governments for military interventions overseas has shrunk significantly. Many NATO countries’ future plans now specify upstream conflict prevention activities as a separate priority area, reflecting the change in approach to counter-terrorism. Civilian efforts, meanwhile, continue with large stabilisation and development programmes, whose context will soon include military conflict prevention activities. This change in landscape for those operating in fragile states is, however, not reflected in the planning of support which continues in a separate manner, with different language used for the same context and even separate tools and techniques to plan for interventions. This not only makes comparisons and evaluations disparate but does not make for efficient use of money, or technology and techniques.

NATO has stated defence capacity building as a priority with the decrease in operational deployments post 2014 and some Western governments have announced upstream conflict prevention as an explicit bilateral priority in future planning for forces after the end of combat operations in Afghanistan. This will be through Defence Engagement activities and involve capacity building of foreign security forces. This has, in the past, worked well to professionalise and strengthen the military of partner nations. However if not coordinated with stabilisation and development programmes, there is the risk that security forces could be operating without strong state governance capacity or with a weakened civil society and therefore political process, such as happened in Rwanda. This unbalanced approach to capacity building could lead to security forces not acting in line with government and citizen’s needs.

A number of external actors delivering intervention activities in the same place can actually be detrimental to security conditions in an already fragile state. In delivering support programmes, it is imperative to build strong relationships with locals, whether those in political power or informal leaders. If different organisations are building links with the same people separately, there is concern that corrupt elements could take advantage. This also makes it very difficult for the recipient country government and locals to understand and coordinate international support themselves.

Historically not natural partners…

NATO guidance for defence capacity building does state that approaches should be comprehensive, including international organisations and NGOs from planning to delivery. However, practically putting this into action requires commitment and modified working from all sides. At high levels within military and NGOs, there is an appreciation of the contribution both make to preventing conflict and stabilising fragile states. The statements made by UK senior military figures to UK Prime Minister David Cameron not to cut the UK’s aid budget and subsequent statement by Save the Children Chief Executive Justin Forsyth exemplify this. However, in practical planning and implementation, this relationship often breaks down. Many development professionals and peacebuilders see the military as only performing combat operations and even contributing to conflict. Key facets of development work, such as impartial delivery of basic services, do not easily sit alongside more obvious political and certainly military objectives. Understanding of each other’s strengths and objectives is hindered by differing language, even when used in the same context. Military language often invokes thoughts of combat operations, even when it is used in a capacity building sense and this actually prevents discussion over similar contexts.

Although NGOs strive to work objectively and impartially, aid funding from donors will always mean there is, to some degree, a link to politics. Funding objectives are broadly set by donors, for example which countries are prioritised and the types of activities (for example, food aid, health, private sector reform). Within a donor system, the funding plans will meet the administering department’s goals set by the Minister. This creates a stove-piped funding mechanism from the initial development of plans. The defence department or ministry operates in the same way, in that objectives ultimately meet the objectives set by the Minister in charge. Funding streams for military and civilian activities are therefore distinct, with separate programme reporting chains set for those acting on the ground. This creates an atmosphere that does not encourage, and can hamper, civilian and military working in the field.

A mutually beneficial relationship

In a time where development aid and military actions have both come under scrutiny and criticism for not achieving enough impact for the resources taken, there is much to be gained from learning from each other’s successes and mistakes, and efficiently working together. Defence budgets internationally have year-on-year dwarfed development budgets. Even with highly publicised cuts in Western government budgets, defence spending routinely invests a large sum in upstream research which ensures technologies and analytical methodologies are robust and updated. This is a valuable resource to gain cutting edge research and methods that are transferable to stabilisation and development work. For example, defence organisations use a mixture of software technology and analytical methodologies to analyse complex qualitative and quantitative data from conflict-affected states and produce detailed context specific research to inform programming. Methodologies in the development sector are not as advanced in terms of the analytical tools used.

Military and civilian actors also have different sources of information. NGO groups often have excellent reach within local communities and therefore have granular information that is sustained over a long-term. Understandably, NGO’s would not want to compromise the local relationships they have by not being seen as impartial but by sharing best practice at a HQ or academic level, this would not affect work in the field. Whilst sharing their information might compromise the humanitarian principle of neutrality, coordinating as a necessity would avoid potential conflicts or negative effects in the recipient country.

Common goals

The UK Government announced last year the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF), a new funding pool for HMG activities in fragile and conflict-affected states. This will replace the existing Conflict Pool to fund programmes covering broader support. One of the underlying policies of the CSSF is to draw together different departments and disciplines across government, mainly through the governance of the National Security Council. The big question will be whether allocated programme spend will be centrally managed or whether funds will still be allocated and managed within a government department. If it is the latter, then departments will continue to work to their own planning and Ministerial priorities.

Whether in military operations or development programmes or between the two, the common issue with coordination and integrated, joint planning is the lack of a single point of leadership. This would provide common strategic goals and high-level direction that would ensure civilian and military organisations work together and with an explicit common purpose in the field that translates into sharing practices and working together. As there will soon be a change in the conflict prevention and stabilisation landscape, this would be an important and opportune time to capitalise on new policies and thinking by considering new structures across organisations for delivery of this work.

The increase in conflict prevention activities in fragile states calls for robust methodologies that are specific to the stabilisation context. In the past development and military actors have applied their own techniques and methodologies to stabilisation work, perhaps taking account of the country context, but not necessarily integrating conflict sensitivity into programme design. This increases risk of project failure due to conflict specific factors that have not been taken into account. For example, working with a recipient country government or through a state lead where, by the definition of a fragile state, it cannot deliver basic needs to the public, let alone process large amounts of financial aid or transparently govern and define requirements for a security force. A common stabilisation discipline would help different actors to share plans and work together through using similar frameworks, planning tools and language. It would also help to solidify a stabilisation culture in which those from different military or civilian organisations can contribute their different skills by sharing a common culture and purpose.

In this world of complex, asymmetric threats that are increasingly difficult to predict, budget cuts in donor governments impact the funding available for all. It is important to remember, however, that increased funding does not necessarily translate into higher impact, but requires intelligent use of spending. An abundance of existing skills and experience exists in the conflict prevention field which need to come together and be brought out for all. Hence there is an imperative on all actors, whether in the field or at a headquarters, to work together, learn from each other and maximise the impact to the recipient country.

Nisha Iswaran is a consultant who has worked in planning, operational and policy roles for governments focusing on conflict-affected and post conflict states. Her experience has included work in Libya, Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa. With an academic background in statistical modelling, Nisha’s research interests are in monitoring and evaluation of aid programmes in fragile states and modelling the dynamics of conflict situations. You can follow Nisha @iamn1sha

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Human Security Centre.


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