by Jamie Arbuckle, presented to the Workshops on Diversity and Global Understanding, Vienna 2 June 2010

A thoroughly modern complex humanitarian emergency typically is a multi-agency operation, involving a vasty array of organizations: international, regional, local; governmental, non-governmental; civilian and military. All have a contribution to make, and some will be vital, but none of them can work alone. Meshing their capabilities to avoid duplications and omissions, is a major challenge for what, begging your pardon and for lack of any better term, I will call the international community. Collectively, they pose a staggering range of diversity, and they present the most complex operating environment I have ever encountered. It is therefore on this, the humanitarian emergency, on which I will now focus. The challenges arising from the organizational and cultural diversity of international and local actors in this type of peace operation are poorly understood, but the problems are so well-known as to have become like Dr Johnson said of the weather: more productive of conversation than of knowledge.

Thomas Weiss has described one well-known example of this complexity in the following words:

Last week (1994), I was talking to a couple of colleagues just back from Kigali. I learned that there are at least 150 international NGOS in Kigali tripping over one another, vying for turf, looking for resources. I have described this effort as like trying to herd cats. (1)

Actually, Weiss’ information was not quite accurate: others subsequently estimated at least twice that number of NGOs in Kigali in 1994 – but no one was quite sure. Five years later, in Kosovo, which is a box about 100 kilometres on a side, some estimated there were about 500 NGOs in the province – but no one was quite sure. And this was in a mission area more or less dominated by the UN, leading the “four pillars” (if you can lead a pillar) of the United Nations Secretariat, the UN High Commission for Refugees, the OSCE, the EU and, as an adjunct, the NATO-led KFOR. The landscape was crowded – especially on that moral high ground – and the architecture was ad hoc and complex.

While the UNMIK operation in Kosovo did eventually sort itself into a climate of reasonable cooperation among the various agencies and with the emerging local government, it will be no surprise that this is more usually a recipe for organizational nightmares.

In this paper, I will describe the problems of interagency communication and cooperation as I have experienced them, and as they have been related to me. Following this description of the problem I will present a short analysis of the origins of the problems, and I will provide a very brief prescription for alleviating these symptoms of disarray. Description, analysis, prescription, then: shut up, and leave time for me to hear from you.

I am constantly reminded that this is as much a learning experience for me as it is for you, and just before lunch I met one of your number who will in the course of this summer do exactly what I am recommending everyone of you should do – I’ll tell you more about him as I get to the end of this presentation.


I will begin this description of the problem with a vignette. What I describe here actually happened, and was reported to me in almost exactly this form by a woman who was drafting a portion of an East Timor mission report to the Secretary General of the UN, and was furious that this incident had been excised from the final report (not the first nor the last time that drafting of such reports was distinguished more by what was left out than by what was put in). So you’ll have to take my word for what happened there; here is what was left out of that report:

The UN CIMIC (Civil-Military Cooperation) Team had to intervene a couple of times to explain to INTERFET (Intervention Force in East Timor ) the fundamental principle that military resources should complement, not replace civilian resources. In one particular incident, a national military contingent performed an excellent job in cleaning up and restoring a hospital. However, before the riots that hospital had been run by MSF (Medicins sans Frontiers), and the MSF team were now ready to return, but were barred by their charter from working alongside armed military personnel. MSF therefore requested the UN CIMIC Team politely to persuade the military to relinquish the hospital and start working at a nearby military hospital instead. Fortunately, the military contingent agreed and the matter was resolved amicably. (2)

It was reported that, notwithstanding the above, “The humanitarian agencies fully shared the opinion of the Force Commander that the primary need was for combat forces, so that security and humanitarian access could be restored without delay”. It would seem, however, that in this case the military had gone a bit too far – they were actually providing aid – but “the matter was resolved amicably”. The report does not record how the MSF expressed their gratitude to the military who first saved and then restored “their” hospital. This case does raise the interesting possibility, however, that some are making distinctions their “beneficiaries” would not: the locals likely do not care, may not even know, of these differences among the foreign community – it may be, it probably is, of very small matter to them who helps them, still less who gets the credit. I will return to that issue.

At about that time, in the autumn of 1999, I was in Kosovo as a member of the Secretariat of the OSCE in Vienna, to check up on how we had been doing with our job of training folks for the OMiK mission. One morning, I met on the streets of Pristina a Canadian friend, who was in Kosovo as the regional chief of a major NGO. I had just come from a very impressive “information day” at the newly established joint UN-KFOR Civil Military Operations Coordination Centre. There had been several very interesting presentations concerning security, mines, communications, weather, whom-to-call-for-whatever, and the states of several complimentary aspects of the operations largely just beginning. I told my friend he should take advantage of this. His answer didn’t surprise me – he rejected vehemently any suggestion that he should have anything to do with, or that he might in any way benefit from, association with such a “military organization”. Knowing something of the recent history of his and other NGOs in Kosovo, however, I found the attitude revealed here a little hard to understand.

Nearly all of those agencies, principally the OSCE (the Kosovo Verification Mission) and an accompanying flock of NGOs, had entered Kosovo in late 1998 after the Rambouillet Accords (which had been incorporated into UNSCR 1199). The “Accords” quickly collapsed – they were never accepted by Serbia – and as the violence in Kosovo escalated, in the spring of 1999 the OSCE and all of the NGOs withdrew from Kosovo, and NATO launched an air campaign in Kosovo and Serbia which lasted from 24 March to 10 June. Those who had left Kosovo came back in the late summer and early autumn of the year, because the arrival in Kosovo of the NATO-led peace enforcement mission created and guaranteed the security environment which was essential for their reentry, and for their continuing presence in the province.(3)  And it was they who had established the CMOCC in which this NGO would not set foot.

Nevertheless we hear, so often, that a humanitarian mission has been militarized, as though it had been thereby hopelessly corrupted – one NGO has complained of humanitarians tarred “with the security brush.” (4)  If you had been injured in Haiti in January of this year, and your life was in danger, it is likely that the first medical treatment you received might have been from Medical Corpsmen of the U.S. Navy – would you mind, terribly, if this were to happen? Would you really object to surgery on board a vessel of the U.S. Navy? Apparently, some might so complain – on your behalf, of course.

It seems that the surest way to create divisions among the international agencies, who are supposed to be cooperating , and who must cooperate, is to have similar organizations pursuing similar goals – we lose no time in running Occam’s Razor down nearly invisible lines, separating from each other elements which are more alike than they are different. This happens most often in the civil-military interface; one example of this is de-mining: is it humanitarian or operational? (5) And why, for heavens’ sakes, should this be a conflict? We have already noted this conflict in, of all places, the medical efforts. Is the similarity of roles itself a threat, making competition a perceived imperative, like the territorial behaviour of humans (as well as other animals)? Is it, on the other hand, a basic dissimilarity in goals, which, despite the similarity in means, are the fundamental conflict? Do we need conflict with other agencies to maintain the cohesion of our group? Perhaps our most serious differences will indeed arise when we do the same or nearly the same things for different reasons. This has been described by Sigmund Freud as “the narcissism of small differences”, and is in fact the source of much of the conflicts and misunderstandings which bedevil inter-agency relations.

It is therefore imperative that co-operation among agencies and organizations be initiated at the highest levels – mandated specifically from the outset, and thereafter maintained as a central goal of management at all levels. Bottom-up co-operation is fragile and episodic, depending almost entirely on personalities and having little corporate longevity. “Grass roots” learning is seldom transportable to a new or another mission, even where the new mission may be – it usually is – staffed with experienced persons. It is common that co-operation in a new mission, despite the collective experience levels of the members of the various organizations and agencies, is very slow to develop: as Sir Michael Rose observed, it took two years (1992-94) before the NGO community learned to trust and to work with the military in Bosnia Herzegovina. However, despite hard-won local achievements, co-operation, especially between the military and the NGOs, reverted to near zero with the arrival (in 1996) of the NATO-led IFOR in Bosnia. Those start-up periods are simply not available to be wasted re-learning lessons so expensively, often so tragically, already learnt elsewhere – but gone missing in transit. The record so far in this regard, is one of lessons not learnt. (6)

I don’t want to present this as a military-civilian conflict, although there is plenty of that around. I also don’t want to target NGOs as models of non-cooperation – but there’s enough of that to go around, as well. (For more on this, read my book, No Job for a Soldier?) The problem is both more general and more widespread than that: the interrelationships among the specialized agencies of the UN – UNHCR, UNDP, UNESCO, WHO – are no less fractious than the relationship of the military and the NGOs, or of the Breton Woods institutions (the IMF, the WB). The interrelationships among the various agencies who make up “the international community” are marked by poor communications, plus competition for access, resources and recognition, and all these are exacerbated by stereotyped perceptions and misperceptions of each others’ roles, capacities and intentions. This makes for a routinely stressful and often inefficient operating environment, where competition for resources and recognition can be extremely wasteful of time and efforts which would be better spent on the management of conflict, and/or the relief of distress. Although things seem now to have smoothed out in Haiti, a story in the South African Mail and Guardian of January 18th of this year, “Squabbling hinders aid effort in Haiti”, sounds awfully familiar. Inter-agency conflicts are not going away. The era of modern peace operations dates from the end of the Cold War, almost two decades ago, and it is high time that we find some new ways to deal with this now-chronic dysfunction.


When we prepare for a mission, one of the most important aspects of our preparation is to ready ourselves for what may be a challenging cultural environment, and we will be aware that this encounter may be absolutely critical to our operation. We will inform ourselves as best we can of historical, religious, economic, dietary and gender issues. We may have to learn how to sit, what not to eat or serve, whether or not alcohol has a place. If we are in a former colony, we will need to be aware of their view of their history. Gender issues can be major problems for a mission. We need to know the history of the conflict thoroughly, and have an appreciation of all sides of some extremely complex and divisive events. If there is time, we will try to acquire some facility with the language (in Namibia, until English was adopted, there were about 18). Cross-cultural training may be far and away the most important aspect of our mission preparations.

When it comes to the other agencies we will encounter and with whom we must work, we spare them not one single thought – unless to hope they might not show up, and that is if we even know who they might be.

If we treated our “hosts” in this cavalier fashion, we wouldn’t last a month.

Why, I have repeatedly asked myself, do we not consider organizations as cultures, and apply to them the skills in cross-cultural appreciation on which we otherwise so pride ourselves? Why did members of UNFICYP who would take Greek dancing or cooking lessons, never open the UN Charter? For that matter, how many peace operators have even read the Charter of the UN or of the AU or of NATO or the Decalogue of the OSCE or the Treaty of Rome, or done any research into the cultural and historical background of the Red Cross or of MSF? I won’t ask, and you don’t need to tell, but we all know the answers to those questions, don’t we?

Organizations are or they become cultures. Charles Handy has written that

organizations are as different as the the nations of the world. They have differing cultures – sets of values and norms and beliefs – reflected in different structures and systems. … Strong pervasive cultures turn organizations into cohesive tribes with distinctive clannish feelings. The values and traditions of the tribe are reinforced by its private language, its catch-phrases and its tales of past heroes and dramas. The way of life is enshrined in rituals so that rule books and manuals are almost unnecessary; custom and tradition provide the answers. (7)

An approach to more mature and empathetic relationships among the various agencies – civilian, military, international, regional, national and non-governmental organizations – will develop naturally when the diverse agencies are understood as cultures: having histories and doctrines, comprising social mechanisms and consisting, above all, of people.

It has been said that “culture comprises a set of ideas, beliefs and symbols that provide a definition of the world for a group or organization and guides for action”. (8) We may also differentiate between informal and formal culture as, for example, the corporate culture which consists of policies and doctrine, and the informal which consists of legends, history and shared beliefs. We saw the force of this informal culture in the US military’s reaction to gays and women in their service, and we see it today in Austria in widespread opposition to anti-smoking regulations. In fact, I suggest that it is the informal culture which is the most enduring, and, subjectively, the most revealing of the organization as a culture.

Culture, then, is like a rule-book, and the rules may be written or unwritten, but they will powerfully influence the lives and the conduct of individuals, of groups – and of organizations. Our friend Willi Scholl, one of the most experienced UN officers I know and a former CAO of the Haiti mission, has said that culture is “the software of the mind.”

The influence of this software may be overt and acknowledged, or it may be subliminal to the point that it is barely if at all acknowledged – but it is always there.


The strategic requirement is for the application of the principles and methods of cross-cultural training and education, to the challenges of inter-agency cooperation.

Training generally imparts skills and knowledge, and trainers will usually be comfortable with programmes for motor (skills) and verbal (knowledge) responses. They are often extremely uneasy with attitudinal responses, which are indeed more properly the subject of education. Nevertheless, trainers and educators alike are very uncomfortable with any attempt to influence what learners may think, and educators will only gingerly approach how they may think.

One important result of this is that attitudinal responses are seldom if ever directly the subject either of training or of education. Attitudes are of course influenced by training and education, but that is almost never the intention. Yet it is precisely in attitudes that culture resides, and it is attitudes which determine whether culture will be a barrier or a window, an obstacle or an opportunity. This is the challenge of education – and almost no one is doing anything about it.

Most cross-cultural training never refers to organizational problems, and I have seldom heard a trainer refer to an organization as a culture. (9) Cross-cultural trainers usually describe a general problem in general terms: religion, language, customs, history; it is then up to individuals to decide what they make of that, and how they might apply that very general description of a potential problem to their own specific situation, experience and expectations. Moreover, cross-cultural training is almost always aimed to prepare a mission member for encountering the host nation culture; such training is almost never aimed at preparing one to encounter the culture of the other organisations in the mission area, but that is where the most critical and problematic relationships will be built – or will not.

Our relationship to our culture, and our encounters with other cultures, are largely a function of attitudes. The best preparation for coping with this diversity, and making it work for us instead of against us, will be education. A particularly important aspect of this education will be information about the organizational cultures we may encounter: the diverse histories, doctrines and structures of other organizations we will encounter, and with whom we should work. The aim will be to replace ignorance with knowledge, and thereby replace antipathy with empathy. These organizational cultures then should be at the centre of cross-cultural training – but this is almost never the case.

NGOs will protest that they have neither the time nor the money for training and, as currently provided in their culture, that is frequently indeed the case. NGO workers are usually contracted for specific missions and periods; outside those mission assignments they are often unemployed. But money the NGOs do have: one UN official told me that he considered the NGO community to be collectively one of the largest unregulated financial institutions in the world. In 2000, the ICRC estimated that the NGOs spent/distributed more money than the World Bank, and the EU stated that 2/3 of its international aid was distributed by partner NGOs. Money they have; but none – and no time – for training. This – among other things – must change.

The requirement, then, is for members of the various agencies to train together as they expect to work together. The mutual learning experience inherent in such training and education will go far to achieve the desired attitudinal responses – it is nearly impossible for people who have successfully trained together not to work together successfully.

The gentleman I met here today, just before lunch, embodies in his own person and his plans exactly what I am advocating for all: an African journalist, he will this summer undergo two weeks of intensive civil- military operations training at the Austrian Army Peace Operations Training Centre just outside Vienna, and then he will look for a position in a peace operation. He is making himself into just the sort of partner you want to meet when you get off that plane to Elbonia, and I only wish I had met more like him in my own active peacekeeping experience.


Anachronistic stereotypes, prejudices, cultural conflicts, historical apocrypha – these are usually central to the conflicts the international community has intervened to treat, to resolve. Importing similar conflicts of our own is neither professional nor workable. If the various agencies are to function as well as they can, as well as they must, in humanitarian operations, their capabilities and their limitations must be clearly understood by their potential partners. I have suggested that this will be most effectively accomplished, and enduring and trusting relationships built, by organizational cross-cultural training and education. This is the best, if not the only way for us to move beyond the Freudian narcissism of minor differences, to a point where not minor differences but close similarities are the common perception, and these similarities are perceived as enabling cooperation, rather than compelling us to competition.

Creating and sustaining empathetic relationships among agencies, and replacing the ill-informed, adversarial relationships which have seemed up to now to dominate the scene, clearly must be a mutual affair. The people we say we have gone out to help are usually in urgent need of our help, and there is no time for the pettiness which has informed too many of our experiences, still less are their emergencies our learning opportunities – any longer.

I am advocating, in other words, that your response to the challenges of diversity, must be diversification: of your reactions, of your attitudes, of your expectations, of your understanding. In other words, to paraphrase Genesis, “Go forth and multiply”- yourselves.

We have now been at this for almost a generation, and it is time for us to act like it.


1. Weiss, Thomas G., “The United Nations in Civil Wars,” in The New Peacekeeping Partnership, ed Alex Morrisson, The Lester B. Pearson Canadian International Peacekeeping Training Centre, Cornwallis, N.S., 1995, page 78.

2. “CIMIC in East Timor: An Account of Civil-Military Co-operation, Co-ordination and Collaboration in the Early Phases of the East Timor Relief Operation”, drafted for a Report to the Secretary General, UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Geneva. Italics added.

3. Something like the reverse of this might be occurring now in Chad, where the imminent withdrawal of MINURCAT “could leave a security vacuum in the east, where aid workers face constant attacks by bandits …” Both Amnesty International and the UN USG for Humanitarian Affairs have expressed these concerns. See, 5/27/2010. This may be a somewhat more authentic, even if unintended, portrayal of the relationship between security and humanitarian agencies in relief operations.

4. Orbinski, Dr. James, Nobel Lecture, Oslo, 10 December 1999, “When one mixes the humanitarian with the need for public security, then one inevitably tars the humanitarian with the security brush.” “Tarred with the brush” is a racist epithet, most frequently associated with Imperial India, used to describe persons of mixed race. (The idiom first appeared in print in 1818, in Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Rob Roy: “They are a’ tarr’d wi’ the same stick — rank Jacobites and Papists.”) MSF has been squabbling with the UN force in Haiti for years ( see

5. The UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA) complained (in 1997) that “operational” and “humanitarian” mine clearance operations were inherently in conflict, especially in Cambodia, Mozambique and Angola, and called for a comprehensive humanitarian mine action capability, “and not subverting this endeavour to help in the achievement of mission objectives.” See Arbuckle, James V., Military Forces in 21st Century Peace Operations: No Job for a Soldier?, Routledge, 1999, page 108 (and fn).

6. There are some possible exceptions to this apparent rule that “what we learn is that we do not learn”: it seems that UNTAES did learn from UNPROFOR (but it seems that OHR, the OSCE and IFOR et al in post-Dayton Bosnia did not); UNMIK appears to have learned from UNTAES. Just how and, more often why not, missions learn is an area requiring further research: why does individual knowledge, experience, learning, seem to have collectively so little and infrequent effect on the performance of subsequent similar missions? One possible, partial explanation is the lack of institutionalised professional education, indeed the lack of any concept or culture of collective professionalism, for international aid and care workers. This is an important component of the military culture – the officer factories, the staff colleges, the promotion examinations – manifest a culture of learning, even if, at least until recently, the military scholar would have been more directly concerned with studying war, than peace.

7. Handy, Charles, Understanding Organizations: How Understanding the Ways Organizations Actually Work Can Be Used to Manage Them Better, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993, pp. 180-183.

8. “Military Culture and Strategic Peacekeeping”, by Christopher Dandeker and James Gow, in Peace Operations Between War and Peace, Ed. Erwin A. Schmidl, Frank Cass, London, 2000

9. My daughter, Stephanie, a busness consultant and project manager, in reviewing this said that, “I do hear the word cultures and organizations spoken of together. As in, ‘it’s just not a part of our culture’, to explain the use of inferior technology, or lack of process. Usually presented as irrevocable.” This use of “culture” describes the box, or the comfort zone, which no one there wants to leave. This is culture as a barrier rather than a window – if you can call this culture.

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