Providence, R.I. – For the third straight year, the U.S. Naval War College's (NWC) Civilian-Military Humanitarian Response Program (HRP) held the Civilian-Military Humanitarian Response Workshop August 16-17. The event was hosted this year at Brown University and was convened by HRP, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), Brown’s Humanitarian Innovation Initiative (HI2), and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI).
"The humanitarian landscape is changing and we must learn how to make sense of what appears to be the new normal--more severe natural disasters, global disease outbreaks and urban conflict. The data tells us the risks are too significant to ignore,” said Brittany Card, assistant professor at NWC. “We’re generally in agreement, we can partner and prepare, or we can ignore these trends until they overwhelm us.”
Over 100 experts and officers from around the globe engaged in the two-day workshop designed to support civilians and militaries working together to develop solutions to some of the world’s most deadly crises.
“Coordination between all stakeholders during a major disaster or complex emergency is the cornerstone of effective humanitarian response,” said Adam Levine, associate professor of Emergency Medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School and director of the Humanitarian Innovation Initiative at Brown University. “This workshop provides a unique and critical opportunity for both civilian and military actors to build levels of trust and increase the flow of knowledge through respectful dialogue.”
A wide range of U.S. and international participants attended from dozens of different organizations, agencies and militaries. While the workshop organizers were largely from academia, the subject matter of the event remained focused on some of the most pressing issues facing humanitarian field workers today. The workshop was also an opportunity for participants to raise important questions with the research community.
“The most important part of this event is that it helps bridge the divide between the practitioners in the field, the organizations that support humanitarian operations, and the academics who seek to improve responses through evidence-based research,” said Beth Eggleston, Director of the Humanitarian Advisory Group who has been responding to humanitarian emergencies for over twenty years. “Keep in mind we’re facilitating this special dialogue between civilians and militaries from different nations and institutional mandates, so it’s not just a matter of getting the right people in the room, we have to fully understand the practical implications of those mandates and how that translates during operations.”
The organizers of the workshop embraced the tension that can exist between military, humanitarian and academic partners. These cultural challenges were actively explored throughout the event, and in some cases they resulted in powerful synergies.
“Given the inextricable links between catalysts to instability such as resource scarcity, human conflict, and criminal behavior, events like this are a very rare opportunity,” said Dr. Hank Brightman, the EMC Informationist Chair at NWC. “It’s not the first thing you might think about, but this workshop gathered exceptional people with a wide range of insights on how to best mitigate corruption within the humanitarian space, particularly in areas where maritime security challenges are present.”
Lily Bui, a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has worked extensively in the Pacific and Caribbean, focused her efforts on leading a working group exploring humanitarian responses to crises in increasingly urban settings.
“Urban crises are a new normal for future disasters and yet, the humanitarian sector is still learning how to address the complexity of urban environments,” said Bui. “This trend requires people in my role to reach out proactively to experts and other organizations so we have the data and techniques to prepare and respond effectively.”
Other participants saw the event as a natural outgrowth of increasingly frequent and intense disasters. Benjamin Davies, associate director of humanitarian research at NWC, characterized the event as, “a pragmatic step towards improving one of the most critical partnerships in a disaster.” However, Davies dismissed the idea of a fundamental separation between humanitarians and militaries in large-scale emergencies.
“This event was about coordination and maximizing the best of what each responder can do,” said Davies. “When you consider the scale and severity of the disasters and conflicts we’re looking at, it’s not a matter of if militaries and humanitarians are going to respond in the same space, it’s about how fast and effective they can be when they absolutely need to respond together.”
Michael Marx, senior civilian-military coordination advisor for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, helped facilitate the event and noted the value of participation by diverse actors.
“This workshop has built trust and relationships within the humanitarian ecosystem since NWC began it in 2016,” said Marx. “The very unique aspect of this is the inclusion of the academic community to provide the evidence to inform good practice. Watching this network grow and deepen has only reinforced that these efforts are the key to advancing the sustained dialogue needed before during, and after emergencies.”
Many of the humanitarian participants characterized the workshop as a rare opportunity to develop and exchange expertise outside of disaster response operations. Having such well-respected co-conveners from academia as Brown, Harvard, and the Naval War College – and combining their efforts with UN OCHA and its mandate to lead humanitarian civil-military coordination during emergencies has proven to be a truly special collaboration.
“This workshop is really the best type of forum in which these issues might be addressed,” said Eggleston. “In disaster response, urgency often dictates our actions and we’re forced to have these critical conversations in the acute phase of the disaster when we all simply want to act out of reflex or our own experience. This workshop is a rare moment when we can meet, plan and learn from each other before the next crisis.”
The Humanitarian Response Program (HRP) is part of CMOW within the Naval War College. HRP works to improve the U.S. Navy’s and international militaries’ effectiveness in conducting humanitarian assistance and disaster response operations.
The NWC EMC Informationist Chair helped to underwrite the cost of this year's workshop, and supported development of areas for further research focused on how to best combat corruption during complex emergencies.
NWC is an upper-level professional military education institution that includes a one-year resident program that graduates approximately 600 resident students a year, and a multifaceted distance education program that graduates more than 1,000 students per year. Its missions include educating and developing leaders, helping define the future of the Navy, supporting combat readiness, and strengthening maritime partnerships. Students earn Joint Professional Military Education credit and either a diploma or a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies or Defense and Strategic Studies.
Established in 1884, U.S. Naval War College is the oldest institution of its kind in the world. More than 50,000 students have graduated since its first class of nine students in 1885 and about 300 of today’s active duty admirals, generals and senior executive service leaders are alumni.