A Military Guide to Nongovernmental Relief Organizations

01.13.10 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

In an effort to promote cooperation with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in humanitarian relief operations and to enhance its own emergency response capabilities, the Department of Defense has published a newly updated “Guide to Nongovernmental Organizations for the Military” (pdf).

When a devastating earthquake struck Haiti yesterday, several disaster relief organizations such as Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders were already in place and functioning.  Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for U.S. Southern Command told the Washington Post that “the military was just beginning to assess what resources it has in the region and … said no official request for help had reached the U.S. military.”  (That now seems to have changed, and a U.S. government response team is expected to arrive in Haiti today, according to the Associated Press.)

In fact, when it comes to disaster relief, NGOs and the military each have comparative strengths and weaknesses.  NGOs have greater flexibility, efficiency and responsiveness, are not hampered by the regulatory constraints that limit military operations, and are perceived as politically neutral.  “With staff members immersed in local populations, NGOs can absorb information faster than militaries can, often because militaries are isolated by force protection requirements,” the DoD Guide acknowledges.

On the other hand, military forces are far superior in their logistical and communications capabilities, and when necessary can bring force to bear to establish secure zones.  Also, “militaries can provide extensive intelligence information about population movements, security conditions, road, river, and bridge conditions, and other information pertinent to conducting humanitarian operations.”

And, the DoD Guide says, “Militaries can respond to maritime and/or chemical, biological radiological, nuclear and high yield explosives (CBRNE) emergencies.  NGOs have almost no capacity.”

“When working within a humanitarian emergency, it often appears that the military and NGOs speak different languages and have widely varying and potentially incompatible missions, capacities, and knowledge,” the Guide concludes.  “This is not necessarily true, and opinions are changing on both sides.”

The 363-page DoD Guide presents a fairly comprehensive introduction to the structure, functions and characteristic activities of non-governmental relief organizations.

“The guide book answers a need which is increasingly recognized in the military, to be able to work alongside NGOs and others who have experience and networks in the field,” Dr. Warner Anderson of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Health Affairs) told Secrecy News.

The author, Dr. Lynn Lawry of the Center for Disaster and Humanitarian Assistance Medicine, is herself an NGO worker and researcher, with relief experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia, Rwanda, Congo and other areas of conflict.  The “Guide to Nongovernmental Organizations for the Military,” dated Summer 2009, was recently made public.  A copy is available on the Federation of American Scientists website.

Relief organizations accepting donations to provide assistance to earthquake survivors in Haiti include the Red Cross, Mercy Corps International, American Jewish World Service, and Catholic Relief Services.