Principled civil-military coordination in disaster response needed in the Philippines

By HHI Resilient Communities Program

A new study by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) underscored the need for principled humanitarian civil-military coordination to avert threats to both humanitarian aid workers and crisis-affected populations in the Philippines. This would require both civilian-led humanitarian organizations and the military to be familiar with, respect, and adhere to guidelines that are designed to ensure that each of them maintains its independence to fulfill their own mandates such as the United Nation’s Recommended Practices for Effective Humanitarian Civil-Military Coordination of Foreign Military Assets (FMA) in Natural and Man-made Disasters,” the report said.

“Climate change is the defining challenge of our era. While climate-related disasters will invariably increase costs to society, we can best prepare for these impacts and mitigate their effects by strengthening civilian institutions focused on disaster preparedness, climate change adaptation and mitigation,” said Vincenzo Bollettino, PhD, the study’s corresponding author and the Program Director of the HHI Resilient Communities program.

“Whereas the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) will continue to play an important role in responding to major disasters, it is civilian institutions that should be strengthened to manage the far more common small-scale disasters that collectively cost society millions of dollars annually in losses. Civilian agencies are also best positioned to plan, train, and invest in disaster preparedness measures at the local level. When major disasters do occur, principled humanitarian civil-military engagement should be the playbook for response,” Bollettino added.

The research entitled “Climate Change and Civil-Military Coordination in the Philippines: How climate change disasters will impact aid delivery in areas affected by conflict,” published in Oscar M. Lopez Center’s Climate, Disaster and Development Journal (CDDJ), revealed significant challenges in protecting the integrity of independence of both military and humanitarian actors in areas impacted by both conflict and disaster in the Philippines.

The researchers conducted semi-structured interviews with 30 respondents who were selected through purposive sampling, from August 2018 to February 2020. The respondents were involved in disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) at the national level and in Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), including among others, agencies working on social welfare, health, education, housing (temporary settlements), agriculture, planning and development, interior and local government, civil defense, safety and security (including different branches of the military like Air Force, Navy, Army), armed and uniformed service (like National Police, Coast Guard, Fire Protection), and humanitarian NGOs.

Military’s Role and the Humanitarian Principles

The report argued that despite the advancement in the mechanisms of civil-military coordination in the Philippines, there are still some areas of concern such as: when relief and reconstruction efforts are provided with military assistance, political patronage, or non-need-based criteria. For instance, when politicians use military escorts, a practice common in the Philippines, this connotes partiality which increases disaster’s scope and magnitude because politically-marginalized communities face acute risks. These marginalized communities are less likely to receive relief assistance and less capable of expressing grievances arising from disasters and consequences.

Impacts of disasters can reinforce a vicious cycle of insecurity and vulnerability and exacerbate anti-state grievances. If people believe that the relief allocation process is corrupt or people in authority withhold goods or reward those loyal to them, disaster management decisions can then generate perceptions of social injustice which legitimize dissent and heighten conflict.

The report further explained that when the military gets involved politically in disaster response, it goes against the humanitarian principle of independence wherein the provision of assistance ought to be autonomous from political, economic, military, or other objectives.

Military: Involvement in disaster response should be limited

The military plays a significant first-responder role in large emergencies and disasters in the Philippines. However, some of the interviewees have expressed concern about this.

This concern was echoed by some respondents from the military who noted that its involvement in disaster response should be further limited, and civilian agencies strengthened to provide direct relief. Its engagement in disaster response was sometimes seen to be a distraction from the military’s core mission of national security and protecting the country’s sovereignty.

“Civilian agencies should be self-reliant in responding to disasters. The expectation that the military will respond to disasters conflicts [with the] military’s first priority: addressing threats to the nation,” one interviewee suggested.

This view was supported by others in terms of conflict resilience or the ability to resist or recover from conflict. Although another interviewee noted that while the primary role of the military is territorial defense, its capacity and size make it ideally suited to disaster response. Civilian organizations maintain the limited capacity to respond on a large scale which results in both local government units and NGOs depending on military assistance for disaster relief, “But that is not supposed to be the case like in other countries such as Japan and the US, the military does not have a major role in disaster response. In other countries, it is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that acts during [a] disaster.”

Humanitarians: Military presence can pose harm

Despite the military playing an important role in disaster response and providing safety and effectiveness to the humanitarian sector as stated in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) guidelines, there are some instances when their presence can pose harm.

Attacks from non-state actors sometimes happen during disaster relief operations. One interviewee from the humanitarian sector said, “The use of uniform of AFP during response adds risks to the other (humanitarian) responders and may make the other civilian responders vulnerable to attacks by other groups.”

Another interviewee said, “The use of uniform of AFP in response to rescue children may also add trauma and stereotype. In some operations with the PNP to rescue children, the PNP does not wear uniforms to prevent children from associating the uniform with their traumatic experience, maybe the AFP can do that as well.”

“The use of AFP vehicles with logo is also being avoided so we do not ask the AFP as escorts when bringing assistance during disasters such as in Compostela Valley (in Mindanao),” the interviewee added.

One interviewee emphasized the need for the military to respect International Humanitarian Law. “In areas of conflict, we expect the military not to intervene (from the humanitarian perspective) except to protect civilians. As military personnel, we want them to serve as examples to the other local military personnel in upholding the International Humanitarian Law.”

On the side of the military, one interviewee answered, “The military needs the respect and understanding of the humanitarian NGOs/INGOs and to assist us so the military can facilitate its work and the work of others and save more lives.”

The future of civil-military coordination

The convergence of natural disasters and conflict is increasing. With the expanding role of the military to take up civilian functions in key government offices, the space for NGOs and civil society also shrinks.

Climate change will almost certainly lead to an increased need for humanitarian assistance that will sometimes be needed in areas that are also impacted by ongoing conflict. In these cases, principled humanitarian civil-military coordination is essential to the safety and security of humanitarian aid workers and the impartial delivery of assistance. The heavy use of former military and police officials as heads of civilian government agencies responsible for disaster preparedness and response could well constrain the work of the humanitarian sector by imposing bureaucratic measures such as registration, reporting obligations, permit system, and restricting access to funding at a time when more, not less, independence of humanitarian actors will be needed to meet the disasters of the present and near future.

The future role of the military will be determined, in part, by the success or failure of legislation of House Bill 6075 for the creation of a civilian Department of Resilience. Such an agency could bring into one FEMA-like department roles for disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. It would likely lead to an increase in civilian capacity and reduction in reliance on the military and the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) in its chief executive function of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC).

HHI said that the findings of the study are particularly relevant to South East Asia where the use of the military in disaster response is common. The findings also underscored the need for research on the role of militaries in responding to disasters in light of anticipated impacts of climate change.

HHI’s study also looked into the Philippine military’s experience during Super Typhoon Haiyan (local name: Yolanda) and the COVID-19 pandemic, and how climate-induced hazards impacted the role of the military at the national level and in BARMM.

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