Change is the Only Constant1

By Zlatko Gegic [Fondation Suisse de Déminage]

Because of the nature of mine-action organizations and programs, they are often placed in post-conflict areas where humanitarian work faces several obstacles. It is important to consider possible setbacks before embarking on demining in a post-conflict country.

Mine action mostly occurs in post-conflict and unstable environments. Always a turbulent period for a country, the post-conflict phase is characterized by abrupt changes and weak government institutions. In addition, a country may face a sluggish economy, fragile infrastructure, poverty, high unemployment and political instability, thereby creating a very complex situation for mine-action operations.

Adrien Buhire
Adrien Buhire, an FSD deminer, points to a hole in his truck caused by the bullet that wounded him during an attack on the FSD convoy in Burundi (March 2008). (Photo Courtesy of Zlatko Gegic)

A realistic question might be why an organization would consider developing a mine-action program in such an unstable environment. Several reasons are fairly obvious: to prevent mine accidents or at least reduce their number; to provide immediate assistance to victims of explosive remnants of war; to begin building the foundation for economic and social recovery; and to provide assistance to and resettlement for refugees and internally displaced persons. While one might assume that the governments of mine-affected countries, having the strongest interest in mine action, would provide whatever is necessary to execute mine-action activities, the reality, unfortunately, is often otherwise.

Political Instability

Conditions such as armed clashes2 and insurgencies3 can result in the termination of activities and mine-action programs. A significant number of disillusioned ex-soldiers and armed insurgents will often resort to criminal activities and general banditry.4 Though unilateral support from the host country for humanitarian organizations would provide the best foundation for mine-action activities, post-conflict governments are often torn apart by rampant political corruption and are unable to address their country’s issues or provide the necessary support to those organizations operating in their country. As a result, mine-action organizations are often left to develop the programs and provide assistance with little or no cooperation from the local governments.

Logistical Concerns

The challenges mine-action programs face in complex situations are enormous, including providing protection for personnel and assets, complex logistics, restricted movement, continual changes in deployment plans, and obstacles preventing removal of ERW in the field. These problems are persistent for those working in countries such as Afghanistan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sri Lanka and Sudan, to name a few.

Economic Difficulties

Despite post-conflict government declaratives and a genuine enthusiasm to assist with mine-action activities, many governments do not have the financial or organizational ability to assist with mine-action operations. This limitation often puts a strain on the finances of mine-action organizations operating in post-conflict countries. Organizations may find they are unable to access task sites, and that their field staff need additional protection, usually in the form of an armed escort. However, the organizations usually have to assume all costs related to this protection, such as fuel, food, daily wages and transport. In the case of Fondation Suisse de Déminage program in Burundi, assistance the authorities offered was in the form of a few indifferent, poorly equipped and unpaid police officers provided as armed escorts. Furthermore, the police officers were suddenly withdrawn when the local government felt their assistance was required elsewhere. Nevertheless, tasks need to be completed and deadlines met. While mine-action organizations may be able to afford these additional short-term burdens on their budgets and staff, these programs can rarely afford to provide such substantial assistance for extended periods of time.

Additional Considerations

Mine-action organizations must juggle the program’s goals and the donor’s requirements with the reality of the situation on the ground. Program strategies, especially proposals for mine-action activities, are written assuming the work will be carried out in a relatively stable situation and are often based on the assumption of minimum costs, sometimes with unrealistic goals, deadlines and financial requirements, in order to win a bid or secure funding. In addition to bureaucratic issues, mine-action organizations must take a country’s specific security issues and insurgency constraints, as well as the ethnic and religious background of national staff, into consideration.

In teams of mixed nationalities, organizations will face challenges regarding supervisory issues. For example, organizations must consider the implications of sending mine-action teams composed primarily of Muslims to work in a Serbian (Christian)-dominated area in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Shiites and Sunnis to work in religious conflict zones in Iraq. Additional limiting factors include the restrictions placed by donors on the use of funds, the type of intervention used (mine-risk education versus ERW clearance), and the prioritization of mine-action tasks. This prioritization is especially limiting when United Nations Mine Action Centers cater to the host country’s wishes, often overlooking humanitarian mine-action interests, and when the corruption and ethical structure of national mine-action authorities manipulate task prioritization on the basis of ethnic bias, further exacerbating an already difficult situation.

Conclusion

Post-conflict areas are generally unstable and require mine action to help return to normalcy. One can be certain that sudden, unpredictable changes are the only constants in this industry. The only way to help an organization cope with these complex situations is to carefully perform a pre-program analysis that sets realistic goals, deadlines and methods of evaluation. Furthermore, in choosing individuals with experience managing mine-action activities in post-conflict environments, organizations can increase the success of a mine-action program. Ultimately, organizations must learn to consider the lack of host-government support, coupled with sudden and unpredictable change, and work to avert these pitfalls, thereby helping to ensure the effective transition from a post-conflict situation to one of stability and safety. J

Biography

Zlatko GegicZlatko Gegic, a Bosnian national, has been involved in humanitarian mine action since 1996. He has worked for several international organizations in Bosnia, Burundi, Kosovo, South Sudan and Western Sahara. Currently, Gegic is managing a mine-action program in South Sudan for FSD.


Endnotes

  1. Alvin Toffler’s famous comment originating from a quote by Heraclitus, Greek philosopher, 500 B.C.
  2. On 18 April 2008, the FSD program in Burundi ceased its field activities due to an escalation in armed conflict between government forces and Forces Nationales de Libération (the last remaining armed group in Burundi, better known by its acronym FNL). The field activities were on stand down for nearly two months.
  3. A drastic example is an attack launched by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebellion group on the FSD convoy in South Sudan in November 2005 in which one international and one national FSD staff member were killed. FSD had no other options but to terminate the program due to complete paralysis and powerlessness from both United Nations and national authorities to cope with the problem.
  4. On 12 March 2008, the FSD mine-clearance team was ambushed by armed bandits while returning from a task in Bururi province, Burundi (the convoy was under police escort). As result of the attack, one deminer sustained a minor head injury and two vehicles were severely damaged. It was pure luck that more serious injuries or deaths were avoided. The remaining tasks in the area were suspended and FSD continued working only in areas in close vicinity of main and well-guarded roads. This caused yet another change in deployment and operational planning.

Contact Information

Zlatko Gegic
Programme Manager
Fondation Suisse de Déminage
Gumbo, Juba / South Sudan
Tel: +256 477 255 761
E-mail: zlatko.gegic@fsd.ch,zlatkogegic@yahoo.com
Web site: http://www.fsd.ch

FSD
Rue du 31 Décembre 36
CH 1207 Geneva / Switzerland
Tel: +41 22 737 20 43
Fax: +41 22 737 20 49