Master of Advanced Studies
in Humanitarian Logistics and Management


Coordinating Military and Humanitarian Action - E.S.

Challenges to Civil Military Coordination in Contemporary Humanitarian Action
by Gianluca Maspoli

The humanitarian action has grown in complexity since the end of the Cold War because the context in which humanitarian actors operate has changed significantly: the nature of conflicts has changed, and the number of actors involved has increased. Moreover, humanitarian action has become more difficult because it takes place more often in the context of complex emergencies. This evolution has brought some challenges: the respect of humanitarian principles (i.e., humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence); the preservation of the humanitarian space; and an increase of attacks against humanitarian workers.

The development of guidelines on civil-military coordination is one of the answers to the change of the humanitarian operational environment. In particular, the development of UN Civil-Military Coordination (UN CMCoord) seeks to provide guidance on how to find a trade-off between advantages and risks of engaging with the military in humanitarian action. The military can provide significant logistic and planning capacities that humanitarian actors do not have. However, the involvement of military actors in humanitarian action entails risks as well: it can compromise the humanitarian action because military actors’ mandate is often opposite to the humanitarian one and this risk is particularly severe in complex emergencies.

This paper is a study of UN CMCoord and aims at identifying key challenges and possible recommendations for developing further these civil-military coordination guidelines in complex emergencies. In particular, it focuses on the UN CMCoord guidance developed by UN OCHA (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) for complex emergencies. The analysis uses the system dynamics and aims at evaluating whether UN CMCoord may become a “fix that fails.” The analysis is also applied in the case of Mali.


The result of this research is the identification of some challenges that are affecting today UN CMCoord and need to be addressed to mitigate the risk of becoming a “fix that fails.”

First, an important challenge is generated by a complex network of actors that makes the binary division military-civilian simplistic and ineffective. Thus, the obstacles to UN CMCoord are not caused by the military side, but also on the civilian side.

Second, the challenge of politicisation is both operational and strategic as it depends not only on how humanitarian, development and peacebuilding missions are implemented, but also reflects fundamental policy and strategic decisions taken by States, international organizations, and humanitarian agencies.

Third, the definition of scenarios as the basis for UN CMCoord strategy (peace, peacekeeping, peace enforcement, combat) are not always realistic as they overlap and are not always helpful for choosing the strategy.

Fourth, the “do no harm” principle is mentioned in the UN CMCoord but is not integrated with the assessment. The “do no harm” merely is announced as a precaution, but the UN CMCoord Field Handbook does not integrate it into the assessment framework.

Fifth, there are of misunderstandings on roles and mandates due to a lack of clarity of words’ meaning. First, there is a loose use of the words civilian and humanitarian that designate actors working in different sectors or not bound by the principled approach. Second, it the distinction between different humanitarian actors requires developing a different word for the humanitarian action that is not led by the principled approach.

The analysis conducted in this research brings the following set of recommendations:

• Introduce the distinction between humanitarian and civil actors;

• Differentiate  humanitarian  actors  and  apply  a  narrow  understanding  of  what  is  the humanitarian community:

• Address specific limitations of current guidelines;

• New terminology has to be developed for distinguishing civilian and humanitarian and different groups of humanitarian actors.


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