Evaluating Military Engagement in Disaster Response

Publication Date: 
Monday, August 29, 2016

With the world focused on terrorism, conflict in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, it is easy to forget about the threat posed by natural disasters. Natural disasters pose as great a threat as conflict does to the well being of millions of people across the globe and undermine livelihoods by wreaking havoc on property and natural resources. Current and anticipated sea level rise and changing patterns in and increasing severity of weather-related events pose significant threats to populations globally. These large disasters impact lives and property alike, and at times, are too much for affected states to manage on their own.

When disaster-affected states are unable to cope with the response and recovery to disasters on their own, they often turn to other states and the international humanitarian community to help manage the disaster response and to provide resources and know-how to ensure a quick recovery. Increasingly it is foreign militaries that are called to assist in the early days of disaster response, raising dilemmas about how long to use them and in what capacity. In circumstances where natural disasters hit crisis-affected areas (for example, the Pakistan floods in 2010), the stakes are high for humanitarian agencies.

Arguably, far more attention needs to be paid to disaster preparedness, both to reduce vulnerability to disasters by following building codes, building in safe areas not prone to repeated flooding), but also to be better prepared to respond through better training, professionalization of humanitarian response and greater coordination between national and international humanitarian actors. Yet, many disasters today are so large that states lack capacity to manage the immediate response using civilian capacity alone. This is where national militaries, and at times, international militaries have come to play a critical role. Because militaries’ primary function is war fighting, this begs questions about their involvement in aiding humanitarian response to natural disasters. How effective are militaries in providing assistance? What are the benefits/costs to humanitarian agencies of coordinating with militaries? How do we measure the impact of militaries involvement in humanitarian response? How do local populations view military engagement in relief efforts? When multiple international militaries respond, how can their activities be most effectively synchronized and coordinated to complement relief efforts being led by the international humanitarian system?  There is scant empirical evidence to answer these questions fully. Yet, militaries are increasingly being called to respond. Governments, humanitarian aid agencies, militaries and donors need to pay more attention to these dynamics and begin funding empirical research in this domain.

The growing importance of militaries in humanitarian response

In recent years, humanitarian needs have grown steadily, with an increased number of resources needed to meet the needs to people directly affected by disaster. Earthquakes like the one in Haiti (2010) and Nepal (2015) or massive super typhoons like Haiyan which hit the Philippines in 2013, underscore the dangers of failing to prepare. While the first responders to any disaster are always the local communities directly affected by the disaster, these communities are often overwhelmed by large disasters and require the support of neighboring communities domestically, and many times by a diversity of both domestic and international humanitarian organizations. Yet, international humanitarian organizations themselves are often unable to provide immediate relief in the days following a disaster. It takes these organizations time to get on the ground, gain access to heavily damaged areas and vulnerable populations, conduct assessments to identify needs, and bring in or locally hire the resources needed to provide relief to those impacted by the disaster.

In many instances it is the national military of the affected state, often aided by international militaries that provide life saving aid in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Militaries have the unique capability to move thousands of people and critical supplies and equipment needed, for example, to clear and open airports, sea ports and roads, and to restore essential infrastructure that would otherwise take weeks or months for other agencies to organize. In short, militaries have a pivotal role to play in the early days of relief from major disasters that surpass the capacity of the affected state. At the same time, the introduction of foreign militaries complicates matters, as these militaries have to be integrated into an already operational domestic response. (Take for example the Philippines in response to Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 where more than 23 foreign militaries provided assistance across a wide geographic area). This means scarce domestic military resources needed for the response have to be used to coordinate foreign militaries.

Disaster response is not typically a military’s primary mission (though indeed, in a number of countries, the national military is in fact mandated to provide disaster relief), and unsurprisingly, many states are hesitant to request aid from foreign militaries. There are a number of challenges associated with the engagement of militaries in disaster response. First, militaries often send materials that they happen to have available as opposed to what is needed or requested on the ground. Resources should be “pulled” into the theater of operations based on need, not “pushed” based on availability. Second, where militaries do participate in disaster relief, there may be conflicts of interest, particularly in complex emergencies where one or more of the militaries may be simultaneously engaged in the conflict. In complex emergencies, there is the added challenge of safety and security of humanitarian aid workers; as a result, many humanitarian aid agencies will seek to mitigate risks to their staff by curtailing their involvement with militaries. Finally, in large responses where multiple foreign militaries and aid agencies are all descending to provide aid at the same time, there can be competition for flight rights coming into an airport, for storage facilities, and for domestic transport to get resources from the airport to dispersed areas of need. These challenges make it paramount to have clear guidelines that govern the circumstances under which militaries and aid agencies coordinate their activities and it points to the importance for education and training so that both sets of actors are prepared to engage in the field.  

Increasingly, foreign militaries are called to respond to major disasters. In these cases, foreign militaries will provide assistance both in line with bi-lateral agreements between states and in conjunction with the international humanitarian system, coordinated by the United Nations Resident Coordinator, supported by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). The rules governing the use of foreign military assets for international disaster response are known as the Oslo Guidelines (formally the Guidelines on The Use of Foreign Military and Civil Defence Assets in Disaster Relief). These guidelines stipulate whether, when, how and under what circumstances foreign military assets may be used in the provision of disaster relief and govern how foreign militaries engage with international humanitarian agencies.

A series of humanitarian reforms that start with GA 46/191, lead to changes to the structure of the international humanitarian system and how its constituent parts are organized and coordinated. The intent of these reforms is to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of aid delivery, to improve coordination among humanitarian agencies, and to make the agents of aid responsible and accountable to its recipients. Two correlates of these reforms were essential to ensuring that the reforms had teeth, namely: professionalization of the field, and the increased adoption of evidence-based approaches to aid delivery.

Expanding the evidence base

Despite years of reforms that have made evidence-based programming with monitoring and evaluation integral to the practice, this has rarely been applied to evaluating humanitarian civil-military engagement. There is little evidence available to answer even the most basic questions. What are the factors associated with effective civil-military coordination? What are the reputational costs/benefits of humanitarian agencies coordinating with international militaries? How do recipients of aid perceive international militaries and humanitarian agencies’ roles in aid delivery? Does the use of international militaries to deliver aid lead to dependence on militaries for this kind of service? Does humanitarian civil-military engagement save more lives than would have been saved absent this engagement?

David Polatty, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College’s Humanitarian Response Program, which works closely with UNOCHA and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, recently noted that “Militaries typically do a very thorough job analyzing their responses to natural disasters and publishing detailed lessons observed.  Most humanitarian organizations do the same. What we haven’t seen often enough, though, is a cross-functional approach where academics, humanitarians, and militaries come together to make an effort to comprehensively examine civil-military engagement and attempt to measure its effectiveness with respect to positive and negative impacts on the affected state and its population.”

Developing an empirical evidence base on how international militaries and humanitarian agencies perform in the delivery of aid and the impact of their engagement with each other is essential for informing the development of policy, as well as improving training and ultimately, reducing frictions and increasing effectiveness in emergency response when it is needed most. There is good movement in this direction with trainings being offered routinely by UN OCHA as well as the United States Agency for International Development’s Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), and the Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance (CFEDMHA). But humanitarian civil military training should be expanded through greater partnerships, especially with academic institutions, where professionals can be trained not only on the guidelines and practice of humanitarian civil military engagement but on the critical methods required to evaluate its outcome. 


Linda Poteat's picture

We actually did a joint After Action Review following the Haiti Earthquake response which included InterAction and representative member NGOs, US military (Pentagon, Southcom, others), UN OCHA Civil Military Coordination Section, USAID OFDA Military Liaison Unit and United States Institute for Peace (facilitator for Civil Military Working Group since 2005). It was a really helpful exercise during which "lessons identified" for future responses were drawn up. It might be interesting to reach out those organizations to see if a copy of that document is still available.

Farman Ullah's picture

Looking into the last few humanitarian responses to Natural Disasters, it has proved that military has always played a very prominent role especially at the initial life saving stage, cant be ignored. When we talk about the military engagement, we really need to see the nature of disaster, whether its natural or conflict and the basis of which, the involvement of military can be evaluated which the experiences have shown in natural disaster, the military engagement is much more effective especially when we talk about International militaries.
You have pointed out the coordination between the humanitarian organizations and the militaries which is the key to such responses. But more into this, combined training on humanitarian spheres for the militaries, the most needed one.

Hakimi bin Abdul Jabar's picture

My parents and I were glued to the television set watching real live footage on CNN when Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf states, killing over 1,200 people, leaving thousands more homeless, and causing over $100 billion in damage — one of the worst natural disasters to befall the United States.


We saw nearly 70,000 troops — active duty, Reserve, and National Guard — would eventually become involved in relief efforts, the largest effort in U.S. history, according to a study commissioned by the U.S. Army Combat Studies Institute.


The impact of any serious natural disaster in a developed & advanced nation, such as the USA, showcases the brutality & unavoidable impending doom of natural disasters.  It is absolutely possible to prevent any conflict but downright improbable to prevent such natural disasters.  You can send in militaries and civilian negotiators to advise/tell parties to conflicts to cool down or buzz off but try telling that to a Category 5 Hurricane.  You'll end up pretty much far, far worse than Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.


The efforts undertaken by civilian and military organizations in response to Hurricane Katrina were historically unprecedented, but a number of changes would enhance future Army and National Guard disaster-response efforts, including sharing information with civilian disaster-relief agencies, in bridging gaps between their militaries and civil sectors, in the the areas of humanitarian assistance and disaster response.


One such mutual civilian-military  academic collaboration in the areas of humanitarian assistance and disaster response that comes to mind is listed below :



mastergrades's picture

In our country, military and civilian volunteers are ready to move and help on disaster-stricken areas. They are always around equipped with emergency rations and other reliefs. Places like evacuation centers are also ready for people living in dangerous zones.

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