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Developing Alternatives: The Locality Demining Model in Cambodia

Updated Wednesday, 18-Sep-2013 09:17:47 EDT

Mines Advisory Group has developed a new demining model that trains local citizens to clear mines in their own villages. After using the model for almost 12 months, MAG shows this method is as thorough as Mine Action Team units and requires fewer resources.

Background

Mines Advisory Group provides conflict-affected people a chance to rebuild their lives and communities through targeted clearance activities on the ground. In Cambodia last year, where MAG has been operating since 1992, we piloted a new initiative to address our donors’ desire to get more productivity for their money and also to further engage local people in demining activities closer to their homes. The concept is called "locality demining" and at its centre is the employment of local residents where mine action or clearance is most necessary.

Following a period of monitoring and evaluation, MAG Cambodia has continued with the programme as an integral part of the "toolbox" approach to our mine action operations. It has not replaced MAG’s traditional Mine Action Team concept—our pioneering alternative to a regimented "platoon" clearance—but aims to complement the range of tools available in-country. It also results in more manual clearance per dollar and aims to get more deminers on the ground, providing greater clearance whilst working with the neediest individuals in-country.

After more than a decade of mine action by international operators in Cambodia, there was an increasing realisation of the need for more efficient ways to undertake manual clearance. More appropriate solutions for clearance needed to be explored, and growing awareness that mines in Cambodia were being cleared by communities instead of waiting for demining experts meant MAG needed to create a village-based model.

At the same time, MAG continues to use the highly mobile Mine Action Team units comprised of 15 multi-skilled individuals, ready to respond to the various demands of mine action. Consequently, a number of diverse tasks can be dealt with at any time with the MAT. Whilst the MAT plays a vital role in manual clearance, there was a need to develop a more efficient, cost-effective demining model to keep salaries in the local community and, as an added bonus, eliminate the problems of long commutes for demining staff.


Ling Phanh is a locality deminer in Cambodia.
© Sean Sutton/MAG

Locality Model Characteristics

It was recognised that much of the routine drills associated with manual clearance in Cambodia (notably sweeping and prodding) do not require a highly skilled (or highly paid) team to undertake what is widely seen as a repetitive, dull task. Following this rationale, a model was piloted where recruitment for MAG’s operations would be done from within the communities at risk. Local people would be trained to the same level as MAG deminers and would, in some instances, complement the more experienced and mobile MAT staff. The aim was to employ individual members of the neediest families with support in the selection process coming from development agencies working in the area. This also coincided with the increasing trend in Cambodia of donors funding mine action through development agencies.

In conjunction with the Lutheran World Federation in Battambang province, MAG initiated a programme in the areas where LWF was working as well as those areas from the nationwide Level One Survey (a study on the impact of landmines in particular areas). Funding, brokered by LWF, was targeted at villages where agencies’ development work was being hampered due to mine threat, promoting positive links between conflict clearance and development activities. In terms of recruitment, vulnerable families were identified by LWF and proposed as candidates. MAG then carried out a selection process, actively encouraging females and the disabled—traditionally the poorest in a community—to get involved. Basic demining training equal to the normal MAG standards was given to the newly recruited teams.

Appropriate pay scales were researched prior to using the model. In many rural areas, the poor have little or no land of their own and rely on work as daily labourers. This work is generally poorly paid, often as low as $1 (U.S.) per day, and sporadic, depending on the season. During periods when no daily jobs are available, families are reliant on other income-generating activities as diverse as gathering resin, firewood and fruit from the forest or collecting scrap metal, both of which incur degrees of risk regarding contact with remnants of conflict.1

It was necessary to decide on a salary level that would ensure jobs were not sought after by more influential (and well-off) villagers and would employ rural villagers without distorting the labour market significantly. After discussions with its partners, MAG settled upon a rate of $3 per day. MAG also took on villagers as full employees, rather than daily labourers, to comply with insurance coverage and ensure they received other benefits, such as paid leave, sick leave, maternity benefits, etc.

The Positives of Locality Demining

The positive outcome of a locality-demining model can be summarised as follows:

  • Stimulating the local economy by hiring employees at the village level
  • Engaging local communities in issues affecting their lives (empowerment)
  • Potentially integrating development activities directly as a result of clearance activities
  • Maintaining or increasing quality, productivity, and attendance and reducing problems in management as found with traditional teams
  • Engaging formal clearance agencies to address the phenomenon of "village demining"
  • Reducing cost for manual clearance operations

Real benefits. The locality model’s main benefit is it employs local people at a higher wage than they can normally earn. Informal interviews2 confirmed that regular paid employment is a real benefit to landless and vulnerable households in the area. Wages are used to pay off debt, buy essential household items (such as housing construction materials), provide money for healthcare, etc.

There are also incidental benefits regarding the domestic situation of staff. A mobile MAT works in an environment without the normal discipline and routine of family life, far from home, and they can often find themselves exposed to the risk of daily life outside the safety of their family unit; it may seem extreme, but it can include exposure to the risk of HIV infection or gambling (common amongst male deminers). The locality model reduces the number of staff working away from home and supports a sound family environment.

Empowerment. Working with local communities is a means to empower local people, getting them involved in the problem as well as being part of the solution. Traditionally, the mine action community, not the local community, has decided who should benefit from clearance activities. Involving communities to a greater degree both engages local people and allows them to address their problems in an appropriate way.


A deminer removes a mine from the ground.
© MAG

Better management, better attendance. Although the program is still in its infancy, it has been found that the quality of the type of work a locality deminer does has been on par with the clearance quality of a traditional MAT deminer. Additionally, attendance of locality deminers has proved better than those of the MATs. There is less absenteeism with locality deminers, possibly due to a closer attachment with the land being cleared. MAG did introduce an attendance bonus (as it did with all deminers around the same period), and unwarranted lost workdays meant the loss of the attendance bonus. It is the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure staff are not working when ill.

This is in stark contrast to mobile MATs whose attendance rates prior to the introduction of the attendance bonus did not meet expected standards. Even with both types of teams following the attendance bonus plan, there is still better attendance from locality teams and, in turn, higher productivity rates.3 Field supervisors report fewer problems managing the unit because the locality deminers return home to their houses at the end of the working day, whereas MAT deminers live in the same building as the supervisor.

Heightened understanding of risks. Initial reports from supervisors and mine action officers show the signs of a heightened understanding of the risks and potential dangers of explosives. Untrained people, or those who have not received MAG’s vital mine risk education, can often put their families and their own lives at risk by doing what they believe may be right when faced with a dangerous item, though it might, in fact, be deadly. MAG’s thorough educational programme gives the deminers a heightened understanding that can stay with them (and their families and close friends, should they share their knowledge of what not to do) all their lives.

Better productivity for the donor. The locality model reduces operational costs; salaries are in line with local employment rates despite being higher than casual-labour wages. Also, with a traditional mobile MAT, a per diem and accommodation costs have to be paid. The locality model eliminates these associated costs. This, in turn, means more metres are cleared for the same investment.

The Challenges of Locality Demining

There are many challenges to locality demining:

  • The inter-relationship of development activities, priorities and planning
  • Inappropriate adoption where other tools would be the better solution (i.e., donor interest in the model leading to implementation without consideration for its practicality)
  • Relative inflexibility through lack of skills and lack of mobility
  • Concerns about unofficial "village demining" taking place after the contract is over

Development and planning. It is apparent that there must be clear and precise dialogue with development partners when undertaking the planning process for ground operations. Whilst there is an established provincial-planning process, MAG knows the importance of liaising with development partners from the outset to ensure resources are being allocated to priority areas. The danger is to concentrate on areas where partners are working at the expense of areas with greater contamination where the partner agency does not work. MAG recognises it has an important role to play in working closely with development agencies to share experience and prioritise work on the ground.

Donors’ needs versus community’s needs. The locality model has proven popular among partners, and it has become an overriding objective of partners and donors in control of funds. However, MAG has experts on the ground to ensure the most appropriate method of clearance is being applied to a suspect area; MAG also knows the locality model will not always be the best solution. Immediately targeting funds on the locality model rather than seeking the solution best suited to the clearance task can certainly be detrimental to the community. In a situation in which the presence of suspect areas is hampering development activities, much speedier "area reduction" techniques could be applied to get the job done. This is preferable to starting a lengthier process in setting up a locality demining programme, especially when MAG’s technical experts know manual demining is not necessarily what the community needs. These issues are being addressed as more donors are increasingly aware that it is not about what looks good on paper but much more about what the community’s needs are on the ground.

Limitations of skills. One major constraint is the comparative inflexibility of the locality deminers. Under normal circumstances, a MAT might undertake several different tasks a relatively short distance from each other. For example, a development agency might be clearing sites for construction of water pumps, and this might require demining as well as some surface-area tasks. It is difficult for the locality deminers to split from the group and undertake other tasks due to the lack of additional skills that can be found in a more experienced multi-skilled deminer.

Unofficial "village demining." Development of skills for local people is generally seen as a positive step, but when the employment finishes, there are concerns villagers may be tempted to offer their services for sale elsewhere. In other industries, this may not be an issue, but when the work involves demining, the concern is valid. Agencies such as MAG operate under the tightest safety operating procedures and the employee comes under close scrutiny and care. MAG also provides insurance and the safety measures employees need in order to carry out their work in confidence. Informal clearance does not provide this. As much as 60 percent of all land cleared is estimated to have been made so through informal clearance,4 so this model addresses the phenomenon face on, with a view to ensuring quality of work as well as maintaining levels of safety.

Villagers understand the benefits of working with a reputable organisation. Also, by having a team located in a particular area undertaking clearance, it is predicted that the overall need for clearance by informal village demining will be reduced. This aside, much informal village demining today takes place in areas of low threat whilst MAG aims to have locality teams in areas of highest threat.

Team supervisors and mine action officers report a heightened sense of awareness of the risk of mines and believe that, due to more clearance taking place in their area and less land presenting an immediate threat to villagers, it is debatable whether village demining will take place. As locality deminer contracts have not yet ended, this will be monitored further at the appropriate time.

Pre-conditions for Success

It is apparent that the locality model will not replace the MAT model. From programme experience over the last eight months or so, MAG recognises the need to complement the locality teams with mobile MATs, Technical Survey Teams and other elements of more traditional clearance activities.

It is also clear that management plays an important part in the success of the model, as in most operations. Training must be rigorous and graded to lower levels of education, if appropriate. Indeed, a requirement for recruiting is a minimum standard of education, and this may prove difficult in communities deprived of access to educational facilities over long periods.

Also, unlike MATs, it is harder to break a locality team into smaller units to undertake tasks such as clearing sites for well-digging. The tasks must be appropriate; the site must be able to accommodate the whole group without splitting it into smaller groups (which may require further experienced supervision and medical coverage).

In refining the model, it was agreed that, due to the investment in training new deminers, a period of around two years was seen as appropriate for the life of a team. A period as short as four months, for example, would make the operation inefficient in terms of initial investment in training. Bearing this in mind, the deployment of a locality team must be in an area with multiple tasks to support a team over an estimated two years or more. Moreover, the area of operations must be within easy reach by local transport; for example, in Cambodia, the trip to work for villagers is often a 10-minute bicycle ride.

Opportunities

One of the main opportunities for expansion is the value of employment for the households engaged in the locality teams. With a certainty of employment over the forthcoming period, there is some guarantee of income for the households. It is the challenge for development agencies working together with MAG in these areas to ensure maximum benefit that is derived from the regular income from a job with MAG.

Many of the vulnerable households are crippled by debt; independent loan agents lend money to households at extremely high interest rates of 100 percent per annum and above. There is an opportunity to maximise the earnings potential of locality deminers through debt reconciliation; the development agency pays off the debt of the household and in turn the household pays back the loan at cost to the agency. In this way, the household may eliminate debt faster than normal so that wages paid can be concentrated on accruing benefits for the household instead of paying off crippling loans. This is an area for further work with development agencies and MAG in the future.

Conclusion

The locality model aims to provide more community-oriented and cost-effective action in line with MAG’s overall mission to find solutions that not only put people first but are appropriate. Importantly, MAG has found that it can train villagers in the core skills and, with supervision and good management, undertake demining as effectively as long-serving, multi-skilled and better-paid mobile teams.

It is clear the locality demining model presents a number of clear advantages. Most notably, it helps communities address the problem of remnants of conflict in their own backyard. Also, it is no coincidence that staff attendance is high amongst locality deminers because the desire to work for a steady wage is strong. We believe that the desire to clear their own villages also provides a keen impetus. With this programme, MAG can look at other ways of involving communities and villagers more to give them a greater say in prioritising which areas need to be cleared first. Where locality demining is appropriate to the area, MAG is making positive strides toward developing new initiatives to best serve the communities right now and for the generations to come.

All permissions for using "locality demining" and/or "locality model" and any text from this article, whether in full or in part, must be applied for from the copyright holder. © MAG 2005. Printed with permission.

Biography

Rupert Leighton, 37, has 10 years’ project management experience in the development sector, having worked with Oxfam, Action Against Poverty and Goal in countries such as El Salvador, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Now a country programme manager for MAG in Cambodia, he heads a humanitarian mine action programme with a team of 500 staff on an annual budget of around $5 million.

Endnotes

  1. Richard Moyes in his report, Tampering: Deliberate Handling and Use of Live Ordnance in Cambodia (MAG, Handicap International-Belgium, Norwegian People’s Aid, 2004), recognises that deliberate handling occurs amongst the most vulnerable families with the least traditional economic opportunities such as generation of income through livestock or land ownership. For online text of this report see http://www.thememorybank.co.uk/members/richard/Tampering
    %20-%20deliberate%20handling%20of%20live%20ordnance%20in%20Cambodia.pdf
    . Accessed Feb. 8, 2006.
  2. Review of the locality demining model was undertaken by Pia Walgren for MAG.
  3. As observed by MAG Cambodia’s technical operations manager, Gary Fenton.
  4. See work undertaken on village demining by Ruth Bottomley, HI-B. http://www.handicapinternational.be/downloads/SpontaneousDeminingInitiatives.pdf. Accessed Dec. 13, 2005.

Contact Information

Rupert Leighton
Country Programme Manager
Mines Advisory Group Cambodia
House # 61
Street 294
Beong Keng Kang
Khan Chamkarmon
Phnom Penh
Cambodia
Tel: +855 23 215115
Fax: +855 23 215100
E-mail: mag-cambodia@mag.org.kh
Web site: http://www.magclearsmines.org