As humanitarian aid workers whose work, security and success are highly dependent on the perception and acceptation by locals, we abide by the key principles of humanity, impartiality, but maybe even more importantly: neutrality and independence. As a result, the humanitarian community is often reluctant to work with, or to be perceived as working with the military. This perception could considerably jeopardise our work, our safety and security. However, since we all work in the same space, are dealing with the same constraints and opportunities, and are often quite interdependent, it is important that we understand the other actors in the field better and vice versa. Therefore, I was intrigued when the staff officer for Training & Evaluation offered me free participation in the October Functional Specialist course in return for my lecture on insights into the humanitarian world.
The week turned out to be very interesting indeed: on the first day we discussed, among other topics, cross-cultural differences and the importance of being aware of those between the military and the local environment but also between the military and the other actors in the field. I found this very useful because it gave me confidence that cultural differences are also being taken into consideration in military operations and that functional specialists are able to work with or around those differences. As humanitarian workers are not usually trained in this competence but need to master it as well, I realized that this training could be useful for those leaving for a first humanitarian mission as well.
On the first day, we were also presented with a scenario for which we would receive assignments throughout the week. Our group was assigned to do the agricultural assessment of the training country Tythan and to suggest a plan of action for the commander by the end of the week. Herein, I felt very much at ease, as this was fairly close to my fields of interest, as in my civilian work we also often need to distil essential information from a large amount of multifarious sources.
The practical session regarding the overall assignment, during which one role player was acting as an NGO, with another one interpreting for the functional specialists, was very useful as well: it provided insight into the NGO-world for my co-trainees, provided for an excellent opportunity to test some of the participants’ negotiation skills, and taught us how to work with interpreters. The latter two skills are obviously very useful for the humanitarian field as well. What struck me as non-military in particular, was the ultimate aim of the exercise to provide the commander with comprehensive information to come to an informed decision coherent with his intent and overall mandate. In the humanitarian world, the hierarchy is often less obvious: however, often you write a proposal to create an interest or to push donor funding, and in that sense, you could compare these decision makers and their function for the effort.
During the second day, the ‘NGO day’, I experienced how genuinely interested my military co-trainees are in the work which NGOs conduct, and how they really made an effort to understand it. However, I still feel that we cannot stress enough that we have different mandates and different approaches to a given situation. And in order to be able to do our work, we often need to keep a certain distance from the military. It was also important for them to understand that when the military steps into the NGO field of work, despite its very best intentions, this will often not be appreciated, for the reasons mentioned above.
Apart from the training itself, the social events, such as the visit to The Hague, the icebreaker and dinner were also a big plus for achieving the final goal of the training, namely to raise the students’ mutual awareness and knowledge on Civil-Military Cooperation. For me, this course has contributed greatly to improve my understanding of why military forces do certain things the way they do, and I believe that it has also contributed to the mutual understanding of mandates, reasons, jargon etc. Certain aspects of the training would also be useful for any first mission humanitarian staffer, such as the cross-cultural awareness training or the communication skills training. Therefore, I encourage other humanitarian workers to participate as well.
About the Author: At the time of her course, Esther van der Woerdt worked as an emergency coordinator with UNICEF (United Nations’ Children’s Fund) Netherlands. UNICEF Netherlands is responsible for fundraising, communication and advocacy for children’s rights in the Netherlands. Previously, she had worked for UN agencies such as UNICEF, WHO, WFP and for NGOs as CORDAID and MSF in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Her field experience spans 12 years in mostly French speaking countries in Africa, such as Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Mauritania, but also in Nepal, Haiti, Kenia and Liberia. Esther has received Masters’ degrees both in European Studies and in Humanitarian Assistance.