The Future of Humanitarian Demining
Issue 2.3 | October 1998 | Information in this issue may be out of date. Click here to link to the most recent issue.
At present, humanitarian* demining
in most affected areas begins with a United Nations(UN)-led emergency response,
which is controlled by ex-pats, who usually have a military background
and who are largely paid for by "ear-marked" donations from UN countries.
Those donations sometimes take the form of staff and goods. At the same
time, as the UN arrives (and sometimes before), the specialist charitably-funded
clearance groups, which are funded by an individual government's aid budget
or by trusts and donor charities, tend to move into the area. The HALO
Trust makes a point of, whenever possible, being in dangerous areas first.
The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and the Norwegian People's Aid (NPA) are
widely represented around the world and probably have the highest profile
of the other "charitable" clearance groups. Following the charitable groups
come the commercial companies. Some of these companies are regionally based,
as with MineTech and Mechem in Southern Africa. Other companies might appear
to be regionally based, but they are actually initiated by profit-taking
outsiders, as is increasingly the case in the former Yugoslavia (e.g.,
UXB International). A few organizations, such as the recently-suspended
Afrovita in Mozambique, are locally based although they are sometimes run
by outsiders. (It is reported that Afrovita has recently been suspended
by the Mozambican National Demining Council for not delivering written
statements of purpose for approval. However, this situation might be temporary.)
Exceptions to the above situation do exist in every affected
region. The UN's Mines Action Centre Afghanistan (MACA) is the most striking
exception. It funds a group of semi-autonomous commercial demining**
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) from its base in Pakistan, and by
doing so, it has pre-empted the slow move toward commercial demining that
is found elsewhere.
While a few new charitably-funded demining groups do exist
(such as MgM in Angola), most of the new players are commercial companies.
Names such as Danex, Bac-Tec., ABC, ECC, and DeDeComp join the familiar
oldies such as Bombs Away, Gerbera, and RONCO. With the massive funding
available for work in the former Yugoslavia, European groups from equipment
suppliers to Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) companies are keen to get
involved, and new allegiances and companies arise weekly. Elsewhere around
the world, the process is slower, but it appears to be unstoppable. Both
MineTech and Mechem are keen to operate outside Southern Africa, and MineTech
has won contracts in Bosnia--breaking a tradition of one-way assistance
by taking Africans to Europe in order to help solve the problem, but mostly,
it is a one-way business.
One reason for the growth of commercial demining is that it
can appear to be cheaper than the alternatives. Some remote funders might
also believe it is more "professional." As far as cost advantages are concerned,
a real cost comparison could only be made if you had identical areas cleared,
number of devices found, land area opened up, operating conditions, terrain,
vegetation, security constraints, speed, etc. In other words, meaningful
cost comparisons are extremely hard to get. Examples at the extremes of
expense and cheapness do exist (see later in this article), but as exceptions,
they are not a reliable guide. As far as "professionalism" is concerned,
the well-thought-of companies are usually staffed by men who have worked
in the charitable sector, so the same level of professional ability pertains.
Another reason for people establishing commercial companies
rather than charities is simply that it is generally much harder to establish
a charity than a company. The paperwork and the search for initial funds
can take far too long to get, and when finally granted, it can be hard
to allocate money for continuity across funding gaps. So demining charities
rarely arise, and when they do, they tend to be headed by people with intense
personal commitment (such as the late Colin Mitchell, HALO; the McGraths,
MAG; and Kruessen and Ehlers, MgM). Charities have to accept all manner
of restrictions and require a peculiarly persistent determination to get
going and keep going.
High cost is often attributed to UN-organized demining. This
situation is not always down to the cost of the UN bureaucracy. For example,
when a donor country sends UN military Technical Advisors (TAs) to support
demining activities in an affected region, the typical cost of each TA
place runs to US$200,000 per year. Often, each TA does a six-month tour,
half of which is spent learning the ropes when he arrives, and the other
half is spent preparing to hand over the position to his successor when
he leaves. The TA might have gained experience, but he is unlikely to have
contributed a great deal to the mine-clearance effort. The cost of his
input is, therefore, inordinately high.
The above example relates to one UN scenario. MACA in Afghanistan
is a contrast. The few TA ex-pat staff involved there are long-term, and
they run a unique system that makes their demining costs-per-square-meter
among the lowest in the world. (They claim to be the lowest, but no realistic
comparison exists.) The MACA system came about because of United Nations
Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) deciding not
to be based inside the country (its base is in Pakistan), and many other
features of MACA are unique to the area, so it could not be easily duplicated
in another region. However, MACA costs are low partly because all of the
staff of the commercial demining companies it leads are local to the region
and so are paid at "local" rates. The local management of demining companies
happens in Southern Africa too. In this case, using a locally-managed and
staffed company can appear to be supporting the provision of an indigenous
demining capacity as well as saving money, so it can be attractive to donors
looking for the best value. (Donor beware!)
While all commercial demining companies share the concern of
making a profit, huge differences exist between their working ethos. Neither
the size of the company nor its country of origin are reliable indicators
of the company's approach or its ethics. Some of the early commercial players
were European-based, as large as Royal Ordnance or as small as Rimfire,
and they still acquired a bad reputation. Rimfire went to the wall, and
Royal Ordnance continues. Many other commercial companies (with or without
internationally experienced staff) have also behaved in a suspect manner,
but they have avoided the spotlight.
Some commercial companies are run by people who have moved
sideways from the charitably-funded or UN sector and have both experience
of on-the-ground demining and high personal standards. Some other commercial
companies are run by remote businessmen or by ex-military men who have
little or no actual experience in demining. The latter are not necessarily
people who will take self-regulation as seriously as self-interest.
At the top of a sliding scale of humanitarian credentials in
commercial demining, I cite the examples of Greenfield Consultants and
Specialist Gurkha Services (SGS). Greenfield works in Angola and Kurdish
Iraq (at least). SGS works in Mozambique and Cambodia (at least). They
are very different organizations, but they both have one important feature
in common. When possible, both groups work with development NGOs: Greenfield
works with CARE in Angola, and SGS works with Handicap International in
both Mozambique and in Cambodia. The safety records of Greenfield and SGS,
incidentally, are reported to be excellent. Their senior staff are men
with hands-on experience, and these men appear to have the commercial insight
to see which way the wind is blowing.
At the other end of the scale are "cowboy" companies that have
been established to make a fast buck from a "fashionable" donor area. These
companies might lack concern for humanitarian issues, but that lack of
concern does not necessarily make them bad at clearing ground. Between
the end points of this sliding scale come varying levels of demining competence
and indifference to humanitarian issues, and these levels can even vary
within the lifetime of the same organization. During my field research,
I have found some commercial demining companies that have laid mines to
discredit other companies, laid obvious mines and ordnances in areas in
order to get an easy clearance contract, left mines and ordnances that
were clearly visible but were just outside of the area they were clearing,
and for financial advantage, claimed that there were mines in a clear area.
It all happens or has happened. The question is not how to punish the companies
that have behaved in this way, but rather, the question is how to control
the future behavior of these companies. One answer is found in the best
examples--MACA, Greenfield, and the SGS.
MACA has TA staff on hand to make sure that standards are maintained
and improved whenever possible. They are acting, effectively, as the humanitarian
NGO partner to the commercial companies they support. Greenfield and SGS
worked alongside humanitarian NGOs and thus have an external check to complement
their own. And while the best companies might not require external regulation
today, it is always conceivable that they would change hands or run into
financial difficulties that changes their priorities; therefore, some kind
of independent quality assurance should always be built into a contract
with a commercial company.
A few new players have entered the charitable NGO field, and
these organizations have demining as only one part of their expressed purpose.
The Irish newcomer HMD is an example in Angola. (HMD has not yet started
to work on clearing mines and rebuilding hospitals, so it is too early
to judge how well the marriage of purposes will work.)
When a direct association with a humanitarian organization
is not possible, it must be up to the funders to dictate the "humanitarian"
part of commercial mine clearance. The funder should accept responsibility
for checking every stage, from survey to "declared safe," and checking
that the standards are applied to deminer equipment and working conditions
as well as ground clearance. In an ideal situation, the national government
or a UN team of independent assessors can assume this role, but this situation
cannot be seen as leaving the funders free from responsibility. The national
government and the UN have made moves to control standards. For example,
in Angola deminers must either be trained by INAROEE or be trained by an
INAROEE-approved instructor. Just as with the Portuguese National Demining
Center (CDN) in Mozambique, INAROEE must approve the statement of purpose
of all demining groups. There are examples of organizations failing in
both countries, so the test seems "real." Unfortunately, I hear that the
same rigor is not applied to the INAROEE/United Nations Office for Project
Services (UNOPS) test of quality assessors in Angola, and some "failures"
continue to work there (presumably as a result of conditions dictated by
The approach of remote funders can often be questionable. Smaller
funders might simply want to donate, feel good, and forget the situation.
Larger donors might find all kinds of political considerations influencing
their judgment. For example, when an organization like the European Union
has decided to fund clearance in an area, there might be considerable loss
of face and political advantage if they cannot do so. In those circumstances,
local governments can impose all manner of unreasonable conditions and
constraints (usually financial, but also on which organization actually
does the work), and the funder might be pressed to accept those terms.
This situation happened recently in Zimbabwe, where the contracts to both
clear and QA the "Cordon Sanitaire" border minefield has been awarded very
controversially. Obviously, funders should have the integrity to avoid
political manipulation, but their inability to do so is probably the responsibility
of their political masters rather than the individuals directly involved
in the situation.
Around the world, a sub-industry of quality control specialists
has arisen. Some companies place experienced men in the field with the
teams they are assessing, but at least one company has been known to subcontract
the work to a commercial clearance company that simply sends in its spare
deminers. The assessors, therefore, must also be subject to regulation.
Below, I suggest five ways a funder could control the activities
of commercial demining companies. Some of these suggestions will seem obvious.
The reason I have included them is that they have all been overlooked in
the recent past.
Surveys of minefields can currently consist of a few GPS readings and the
report of a locally-available ex-soldier with regard to mine positions,
types, and numbers. Local information is essential, but it should be confirmed
by actually locating at least some of the reported items. As is the case
in Bosnia, detailed mine-area surveys (sometimes called "Level 2," "Technical,"
etc.) should always be comprehensive. To allow this process to take place,
someone must pay for the surveys. (Currently, someone does not always pay
for these surveys.) The surveys could cover a suspect area in entirety
and include UXOs, etc. If there are fewer than a set number (five?) pieces
of ordnance or mines in the area, the survey team should destroy them.
Survey costs could be based on those in Bosnia, which are not reported
to be generous. Alternatively, the UN personnel in a country could undertake
directing all detailed survey tasks. As it stands, where commercial companies
thrive they can seek funding from donors directly, and those donors can
insist that the survey is done for free before deciding whether to fund
clearance (as with UNICEF in Mozambique during 1997).
Detailed survey reports should be put out to tender whenever commercial
companies are to be employed. Each interested party should receive a copy
(perhaps on payment of a charge).
Funders should appoint a wholly-independent demining assessor to carry
out permanent documented quality-control assessment to ensure that working
methods are approved and that the ground is surveyed and cleared to the
level expected. That assessor should not be from the same country as those
tendering, nor should he be from the country where the work is being performed.
He should be suitably equipped so that he can be as "independent" as is
possible while in the field.
Companies operating in Southern Africa learned that Mozambicans can be
recruited for half the price of a Zimbabwean deminer, so experienced men
are sometimes abandoned to save a few dollars. (The more expensive deminer
only receives around US$5 a day.) To remove the advantages of using cheap
and inexperienced "new" staff, funders should dictate the level of deminer
training, pay, and conditions and should carry out random checks on them.
Funders should guarantee that deminers are properly insured (to a pre-determined
level appropriate for the region) and that suitable medevac procedures
are in place. Basic protective equipment should also be available to deminers
at all times, and the use of such equipment should be encouraged. The funder
must accept that simply telling a commercial company to provide this equipment
is not an assurance; it must be checked by the funder.
Assurances about the actions of commercial companies might
be best achieved by their working alongside a non-commercial body that
relies on the commercial company's work. It is not only that the one checks
on the other--it is also that a sense of common purpose usually arises,
and this sense of purpose keeps the commercial company on course. MAG set
the lead in terms of trying to integrate demining with general development
some years back. It was obvious to them that their work would be better
targeted and achieve a greater impact if they worked in close collaboration
with other agencies in the area. As a charity-funded NGO themselves, it
was relatively easy for MAG to "marry" with other charitable organizations--although
the clash of military and development backgrounds has not always led to
an easy life. The same clash of military and development backgrounds has
been overcome by Greenfield and SGS in their work with development NGOs,
and this work proves that such a merging can be done if the desire to do
so is present.
To review the points that were made, commercial demining is
burgeoning. Some companies have set a high standard; others need to be
regulated. A system of regulations could be imposed by the funder, the
UN, or by linking the work of commercial demining companies with that of
humanitarian NGOs. Examples of all three control systems exist as models
although the current models of remote control by the funder are less than
satisfactory. Demining donors--governments, trusts, or individuals--can
be giving for many reasons. If it matters to the donor that the money is
effective at getting ground cleared, the donor should look to the dynamic
charitable or UN clearance groups or the commercial companies with established
humanitarian credentials. The future I favor is the continued integration
of demining with wider development aims and with a place for commercial
demining in that union.
* "Humanitarian" demining is a loose description
that seems to cover any ground-clearance not being done as a part of a
military operation. I use the term more strictly. The Oxford English Dictionary
defines "humanitarian" as "concerned with promoting human welfare" and
the word "humane" as "benevolent, compassionate, and merciful."
** I use "demining" to mean "ground clearance,"
which is the removing of all explosive materials from a defined area.