Unusual travel for work? Try running a humanitarian emergency!

I was woken at 7 am Geneva time on Saturday, October 8, 2005 to be told a massive earthquake had hit northern Pakistan. I was the United Nations duty officer available that day. Little did I know that the phone call would result in me spending 2 1/2 years negotiating with military, terrorists and humanitarians to see 3.5 million people kept alive after a massive tragedy.

What follows is a video of the massive releife effort and a description of how we succeeded in keeping people alive. This is an insider’s view on a massive event!


Non-Interfering Coordination’ – the key to Pakistan’s successful relief effort.

In October 2005 a massive earthquake struck northern Pakistan. Whilst some may have heard of the quake, few realise just how large it was in terms of emergency relief – yet it was both huge and hugely successful. We will analyse the Pakistan success in five steps. We will review the size of the calamity, why the military was and should be used, review why Non Government Organisations (NGOs) and international assistance was needed, explain the model of ‘non-interfering coordination’ and look at how the new ‘Cluster System’ assisted in humanitarian delivery. Finally, we will list key lessons learned to be adapted for future emergencies.


The Size


The earthquake killed 73,338 people, including 20,000 school children. While the ‘headline’ death figure may have been lower than the tsunami, all other figures were much larger. Over 128,000 were people injured. 3.5 million people were displaced. Over 600,000 houses, 6,400 km (3,977 miles) of road network, 6,298 education facilities, 350 health facilities, 3,994 water supply systems and 949 government buildings were all destroyed in approximately one minute.


Whilst the death toll was lower than the tsunami-affected countries, the level of destruction was twice that of all the tsunami countries combined. For example the tsunami destroyed less than 200,000 houses and displaced about 1.5 million people. Added to that, the climate required a massive and rapid response before a brutal Himalayan winter was due to strike in a mere six weeks. This winter would cut thousands of people off with deep snow, close remaining roads and render the earthquake survivors incredibly vulnerable.


Further disaster was predicted, and calamity seemed certain.


In response, the Pakistan Military launched a massive response. US, British, NATO and even Australian military forces all joined hands under the Pakistan Government’s leadership to provide relief and succour to the ravaged region – as did thousands of NGO and United Nations (UN) staff members.


Why Use the Military At All?


But if there are thousands of international NGOs descending, let alone thousands of volunteer Pakistanis, why use the military at all? What is the military ‘value addition’ to a humanitarian situation?


An emergency of this size cannot be dealt with by existing infrastructure and systems alone. With so many government structures and key personnel wiped out, a rapid replacement of capacity is needed. Also, many people will arrive offering assistance and all people will look for an effective interlocutor. Someone has to be that focal point.


So why the military?


The military has assets, mobility, means, organisation, where-with-all and can provide national, district and local coordination infrastructure for NGOs, civil society and international support to ‘plug in to’. Most importantly, they can work in far-flung areas, hard-to-reach and perhaps ‘insecure’ regions. The military, particularly if well trained has knowledge, and the ability to think and adapt.


But then again, if the military is so good, why use NGOs or other actors at all?


Whilst the military may have some knowledge on fighting wars, peacekeeping operations and control in civil strife, they do not have in a traditional set-up any knowledge or expertise specific to humanitarian operations. Nor do they have the understanding of the political paradigm that exists in the middle of a humanitarian operation.


The military specifically lacks advance practice and training in critical standards, such as the SPHERE Standards, that give guidelines on almost everything[1]. Do military forces know how to set up ‘child-friendly spaces’ within a camp? They may know neat rows of tents, but do they know that by angling a tent more privacy is given to an individual family? Does a military force understand the importance of privacy?


Does a sub-unit commander know how to construct a female-sensitive latrine, and ensure its accessibility and proper lighting in order to reduce a female’s vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence?


Does the army collect sex-disaggregated data and understand its importance in planning, monitoring and mid-course corrections?


Does the military know how to set up an IDP returns process and ensure that aid deliveries in a relief operation do not cause a long-term ‘dependency syndrome’?


Most military personnel would have received no training in any of the above concepts, let alone know how to implement them. Yet the military has an enormous capacity to provide logistical support. Nevertheless, without the help of humanitarian experts, it cannot use its logistical and manpower strengths. It must, therefore, be willing to learn and adapt.


Death, cold, starvation and thirst are enemies in humanitarian operations, not an opposing force. Hence when operating in the humanitarian environment, the military needs to change its mindset.


Knowledge and experience in humanitarian and natural disaster response exists within NGOs, both national and international. It must be tapped into so that the maximum benefit is gained from the military’s logistical skill. Their respective skill sets and intrinsic capabilities must combine to produce optimal results.


Additionally, particularly in a large disaster, international organisations can help to mobilise resources, give understanding of the political dimension and provide a coordination network that we will touch on below.


Whilst humanitarian organisations and the military may not be natural bed-fellows, they both must learn to adapt and coordinate with each other in disaster settings.


So what should the military do to prepare?


In all military operations the maxim ‘Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents Poor Performance’ applies. Subsequently, if military forces are being used more often in disaster response, and as climate change experts predict more natural disasters, the military should train more for these types of operations.


We would suggest, that at a minimum, military units should be trained in the SPHERE [2]Standards for humanitarian assistance and understand the basic coordination paradigm. Whilst the army coordinates by control – an order is given and an order is followed – the NGO world does not work like this. Coordination in the NGO world is by persuasion and consensus – not by control.


This is extremely frustrating for a military commander – but the situation merits the old saying: ‘Give me the strength to change the things I can, the serenity to leave the things I can not, and the wisdom to know the difference’. A military commander may try to change the paradigm – but he will not succeed, or at least not enough to positively affect the outcome of an operation.


So a military commander must understand the paradigm, master it and thereby control the outcome, if not the process. In the case of the Pakistan Response, we termed this ‘non-interfering coordination’.


“Working with NGOs”


There is an enormous challenge for a host government, and particularly a host military, when dealing with Non-Government Organisations (NGOs). NGOs are often grouped into one category, whereas in reality they are vastly different ranging from ‘one-man’ operations to multi-national professional organisations. However, there are some characteristics most NGOs have in common.


Firstly, NGOs guard their ‘independence’ and ‘mandates’. Some, such as MSF and Care International, guard their principles and mandates in international charters. One may even see more than one part of the same organisation. One may see MSF Holland, MSF Belgium, and MSF France – perhaps working with each other and perhaps working independently. Some, like the Red Cross Movement,[3] have their independence and mandates enshrined in international documents and treaties.


Secondly, and deriving from this, NGOs rarely, if ever, will accept a ‘tasking order’ from the military.


Thirdly, whilst a military commander may be trained to coordinate by control, the coordination of NGOs is more by persuasion and less by control; more by diplomacy and less by orders, as mentioned earlier.


So how does a military or civilian operational commander seek and gain visibility over an entire operation, if a key component of that operation has skills and knowledge needed, but will not be controlled?


“Non-Interfering Coordination”


Many aspects of the Pakistan Earthquake response were experimental. In seeking to bridge the military world and the NGO world, a new model was tried. ‘Non-interfering coordination’ (a term first coined in a planning meeting at General Headquarters Rawalpindi, Pakistan’s main military headquarters, by the authors) was used to build the bridge.


The theory behind this concept is as follows:


  • Share an open and honest assessment of needs with the NGO and humanitarian world, including the United Nations.
  • Allow humanitarian actors to choose what operations they will undertake, rather than dictate activities.
  • Ask NGOs to inform central commanders of the choices made.
  • Central commanders can then identify unmet gaps in humanitarian delivery which can then be back-filled with the Army and other government agencies.


This sounds simple, and in theory it is, but in practice consolidating that information, and tracking and monitoring the promised ‘delivery’ is extremely hard and challenging both for the military and for NGOs – both have to fight institutional reflexes that prevent them from sharing with each other. On the positive side though, this mechanism means that independence of NGOs can be respected, whilst their activities can be coordinated with the backfilling efforts of the military forces.

Collating, consolidating and sharing information within the humanitarian community is difficult in itself, even when removed from a need to coordinate with the military. In 2005 the humanitarian community went through a process called ‘Humanitarian Response Review’ to streamline their own coordination. The Humanitarian World understands many of its deficiencies in response and is endeavouring to improve. The ‘Humanitarian Response Review’ process created a series of recommendations for reform called ‘The Cluster Approach’ and seeks to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian response by ensuring greater predictability, accountability and partnership.


In essence, this ‘Cluster Approach’ divides up humanitarian response into a number of sectors including but not limited to health, food, water and sanitation, camp management, shelter etc. An Agency takes responsibility for that sector (WHO for Health, the Red Cross for some shelter scenarios, the World Food Program for food) for example) and aims to coordinate and have visibility over that sector.[4]


Through the Cluster System, the humanitarian actors can be asked to ensure that there is no duplication of action, and no unknown and unmet gaps – or at least try to.


In Pakistan the military adapted to the Cluster System. Indeed, for the military ‘clustered’ thinking is the norm. The military already had a logistics corps, a medical corps, and the like, so intellectually understood clustered coordination. By marrying up the military ‘clusters’ with the humanitarian ‘clusters’, a mechanism for identifying and filling gaps was created. In essence, the Clusters would form the backbone of ‘non-interfering coordination’ by being the hubs though which information was shared.


Clusters – Help or Hindrance


As Pakistan had no designated National Disaster Agency at the time of the Earthquake, the ad-hoc structure created to deal with the aftermath (the Federal Relief Commission) decided to structure itself using the Cluster Approach as well.


What resulted was a rare if not unique series of key personal contacts between the national and international coordinators, and between civil and military actors in the clusters. It was these personal contacts within the cluster framework that allowed for the ironing out of some ‘perspective problems’.


The Pakistan military often had the perspective of ‘what has been done’. That is it focused on ‘what has been done rather than what is left to be done’. Military reports spoke of 35,000 tents delivered, or 15 tonnes of medical supplies delivered. The humanitarian world brought with it a perspective on ‘what is left to be done’ and would note that while x number of tents had been delivered, ‘y’ number were still needed.


Whilst the difference in perspectives could cause problems, the ability to talk through issues and raise concerns within the context of Cluster meetings allowed for solutions to be found, rather than problems festering.


Ironically the military found it easier to adapt to the new Cluster mechanism than did the humanitarian world.


Once senior commanders understood the logic of cluster coordination and passed command orders down the chain, mid level offers simply accepted the mechanism as the ‘way things would be done’ as that is what they were ordered to do.


Within the word of the multiplicity of humanitarian organisations things were more difficult. As the cluster system was tried for the first time in Pakistan no pre-existing ToRs, guidance notes or pool of experience existed. Additionally, as the cluster system was rolled out earlier than planned because of the unexpected nature of the ‘quake, many NGOs had not received ‘guidance’ let alone ‘orders’ to implement the system.


The Clusters thereby became not only the method of internal humanitarian coordination, but by virtue of a military presence in the cluster meetings, the system also became the heart of the civil-military coordination structure.


Whilst there were problems in the implementation of the Cluster Approach, the system allowed for them were overcome cooperatively. It is a system designed to improve humanitarian coordination amongst humanitarian actors, and it proved its worth in the Pakistan Earthquake Response by creating a structure for overall engagement between national and international actors, humanitarians and the military.


One excellent example of the system was the ‘Air Operations Cell’ created in Pakistan. All aircraft – Pak Mil, US Mil, UK Mil and United Nations aircraft, were tasked out of a common tasking cell. Cargo was designated to airframe by cargo and location requirements, not by ownership of cargo and airframe. This meant some 100 plus airframes were optimally used even though individual ‘ownership and control’ were diluted.


One further example was the dealing with ‘cross-cutting’ issues such as human rights, gender and environmental factors and issues that affect more than one cluster such as import restrictions. At its peak, Humanitarian Cluster Leaders (mainly UN) met with Government Cluster leaders (mainly military) in the Strategic Leaders Group (SLG). This group engaged across all sectors and was the ultimate governing body of the Pakistan Response. Whilst strong national leadership was maintained, joint decision making with national, international, civil and military partners was also achieved.


Whilst there were difficulties in implementing a new system in the midst of a major emergency, the Cluster Approach in Pakistan produced the facts speak for themselves:


  • One million tents, 6 million blankets, 400,000 emergency shelters delivered or built through a coordinated and consolidated effort. Military and humanitarian logistics capacities where combined and cargo allocated according to need, not dispatching agency.
  • 350,000 IDPs housed over winter, with 95% returning in the first year after the relief, with a unique combination of humanitarian and military management.
  • No second wave of deaths and in fact all medical measures showed an improved rate of cold related infections over normal years.
  • All schools and hospitals functional; first in emergency setting, and now in transitional setting.
  • Largest single relief effort ever.


Statistics like those listed above, and a recognition of the joint role of the military and the NGOs in the clusters led to Jan Vandemoortele, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Pakistan, dubbing the operation “[The] most successful civil and military cooperation ever.”


Whilst the system may not be the one a military force is used to, it is the one international humanitarian players will use into the future. A military commander may be tempted to use his own command and control system instead of the Cluster’s cooperative approach, but to do so, or to try and control or change the international system too much, or not done in full consultation, transparency and within the spirit of humanitarian delivery, the commander will be doing the operation a great disservice by creating nothing but confusion, turmoil and mistrust.


NGOs may seek to fight a new system, or maintain a reluctance to share information, but doing so will also reduce service delivery to the people in need.


In the end, the clusters provided a mechanism for information and idea exchange, between civil and military actors alike. A sharing of a common understanding of ‘who is doing what and where’ allowed for gaps to be identified. The level of information sharing seen in the Pakistan earthquake was, in the opinion of the authors, rare if not unique.


Once gaps had been identified, the approach of military commanders to allow NGOs to freely choose which of the gaps they could fill and then reporting progress back to a cluster meeting whilst residual gaps were back-filled by the military and also reported back to cluster meetings – was ‘non-interfering coordination’.



Lessons Learned

The authors provide the following suggestions as lessons learned for national authorities including military, from the Pakistan earthquake:


  1. Analyse and modify the United Nations ‘Cluster Coordination’ concept in consultation with the actors on the ground and the needs of the operation.
  2. Start big, and scale back, not start small and grow.
  3. Absorb knowledge and be willing to experiment.
  4. Joint Logistics is better than individual control.
  5. A Strategic Leaders Group helps integrated planning and response. It is a sign of strength in national confidence to seek out support while maintaining leadership.


Particularly for the military we see as critical, the following:


  1. A willingness to open up, share information and admit areas of weakness produces better results.
  2. Must be willing to learn and set priorities based on new, non-military dynamics.
  3. Must be willing to reach consensus, not insist on command.
  4. Must back fill gaps through non-interfering coordination.
  5. Must experiment and be bold in employment
  6. Must develop capacities and train in advance (for example SPHERE Standards)
  7. Must engage regionally in exercises and response – including with INSARAG, UNDAC and other mechanisms.
  8. Must have sufficient resources in stock for immediate response, nationally and regionally.
  9. Must share and absorb knowledge and best practices
  10. Military must assist the assimilation of foreign militaries that come to assist.


Many of these recommendations can be achieved with a structured, yet short, training program to include:


  1. Sphere Standards training
  2. ‘The Humanitarian Paradigm’: Training in NGO cultures and methodologies.
  3. Training and an understanding of humanitarian coordination systems such as the cluster approach.


If these issues are trained and rehearsed in advance, in standards Command Post exercises, together with NGOs and UN Agencies, we believe that the above lessons can contribute to a more successful operation. Like in all other areas of military operation, one must rehearse, rehearse and rehearse.


For NGOs, a similar training program to gain an understanding of SPHERE, humanitarian coordination, the military culture and the way that militaries work, would be of equal benefit.




Above all, any military force must accept that until they are trained in humanitarian operations, they are not the experts at humanitarian response. The humanitarians are. When responding to crisis situations, the military should use and adapt humanitarian knowledge and experience, and not be afraid of it. On the other hand, humanitarians must understand that the military has an enormous logistical capacity that can also be used. By working together, each can improve their results.


[1] SPHERE Standards are a consolidated book of minimum standards for humanitarian delivery and cover such practical issues as how many litres of water per day a person needs, how to set up an IDP camp and how to ensure food distribution equitably.

[2] The SPHERE Project set about determining the minimum standards for service delivery to affected populations across all sectors of activity. Aimed at improving the effectiveness and accountability of disaster response, the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response sets out for the first time what people affected by disasters have a right to expect from humanitarian assistance See http://www.sphereproject.org/

[3] The Red Cross Movement is neither an NGO nor a part of the United Nations. Governed by the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, the ‘Movement’ has distinct international legal status.

[4] See http://www.humanitarianreform.org/ for a full list of Clusters and Cluster Lead Agencies.