Working in Non-Permissive Environments: Arming Civilians isn’t the Answer

USAID has long sought to develop an approach for the rapid deployment of its staff into high threat regions. One idea is to develop “Rapid Expeditionary Development – RED” teams. A heretofore obscure February 2018 report sponsored by USAID’s Global Development Laboratory outlines one possible configuration of the RED teams, and has recently drawn considerable attention, and generated considerable controversy, for its suggestion that in certain circumstances USAID employees should be trained in the use of and authorized to carry firearms.

Specifically, the report recommends that “to secure communities vulnerable to violent extremist radicalization and exploitation”, USAID personnel working in such areas be paired with military counterparts into two-person “RED Teams” that would “live and work in austere environments for extended periods of time and actively contribute to their own security and welfare.” RED team members, it adds euphemistically, “would be trained and authorized to conduct themselves as a force-multiplier able to contribute a full suite of security skills as needed.” In other words, they would carry guns and be expected to use them. This, the authors argue, is essential to allow USAID personnel in such vulnerable areas to function effectively and carry out their development mission alongside their military colleagues.

Having directed or coordinated USAID assistance programs in places as dangerous, and diverse, as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Haiti for the better part of the last twelve years, I strongly believe that, in almost all cases, arming civilian development assistance professionals is unnecessary and likely to be counterproductive. The only exception might be in certain very limited situations, notably during or in the immediate aftermath of kinetic operations, or in response to a humanitarian crisis where active fighting exists. Such cases, however, should be exceedingly rare. Moreover, even if USAID officers are authorized to bear arms, it must be clearly understood that they are to be used only in extremis and only for defensive purposes.

While USAID actions are indeed part of foreign policy programming, identifying USAID staff as part of a military response would put at risk both those staff and their partners, not just in the short term but potentially far longer. Moreover, the confusion of roles and identities that this proposed mingling of the civilian and military missions would cause would greatly impede the effectiveness of the civilian mission while adding little if any contribution to the military’s objectives. This is not to say that USAID cannot work closely with DOD counterparts – it can, and it does. There are many examples of strong coordination and collaboration between the USAID and the Department of Defense. But RED, at least as described in this report, is not the way forward.

While the recommendations contained in this report are provocative and attention-getting, they divert focus from the very real, and much more typical, challenges development professionals from USAID and other agencies routinely face in what are typically known as “non-permissive environments.” The fact is that many civilian development professionals have already developed successful ways of carrying out their missions in a wide range of difficult environments – approaches that don’t involve carrying guns but rather facilitate the much more important (in development terms) task of finding ways to work with and understand the needs of the local population despite the dangers involved.

Let’s start with one basic fact: many if not most of the environments in which development professionals work today are, to one extent or another, non-permissive. Most of the places in which USAID operates in Latin America, in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Middle East, in Asia, and in countries of the former Soviet Union are plagued by some type of violence or inhospitable environment, be it gang- or drug-related, political, geographic or meteorological, sectarian, terrorist, or purely criminal. It is for example, arguably as or more dangerous to work in San Pedro Sula, Honduras than in Karachi, Pakistan – although for totally different reasons. And working in Haiti, with a natural disaster occurring roughly once every six months, or in a country such as Belarus whose government is actively hostile to the USG presence, can be as challenging as is working in a country that poses more obvious physical risks. Yet USAID officers in these places routinely find ways to carry out their mission successfully while working through or around these dangers. How do they do it?

My own experience suggests a few basic principles that may be useful to follow. First, development professionals must be acutely sensitive to security concerns. That doesn’t mean they need to hide in their compounds, or cower “behind the wire“. It does mean that they need to coordinate very closely on security issues with their colleagues in the State Department (and/or, depending on the theater in which they are operating, their colleagues in the military). In particular, USAID officers are well advised to work very closely with the talented and dedicated professionals in the Regional Security Offices in each Embassy. USAID officers need to make sure that the RSOs are familiar with the activities and objectives of assistance programs. This will enable the RSOs to put in place security protocols that allow USAID to carry out its mission while protecting the safety and security of the USAID employees themselves and of the communities and individuals they seek to benefit. Security officers aren’t trying to stop USAID officers from working; rather they’re trying to help USAID officers succeed while keeping them safe. USAID staff, and development professionals from other agencies, need to recognize this and make their security colleagues part of the team.

Second, once that rapport and mutual understanding is established, USAID staff in non-permissive environments then need to lean forward as far as security regulations permit to establish and maintain effective contacts and working relationships with their counterparts in the host country, be it with the local government, with the local private sector or philanthropic community, or among the communities USAID programs are intended to benefit. Granted, in non-permissive environments, the simple act of visiting the office of a government minister can be a major security and logistical challenge. Trying to arrange visits to project sites at schools or farms or businesses in remote areas can be even more challenging. But USAID’s experience demonstrates it is possible, given proper advance planning – and particularly, proper coordination with and support from the RSO. If it proves impossible to meet with counterparts at their offices, or to visit project sites, bring them, or the key personnel from the project to the USAID office – or meet them at a safe alternative location (e.g., a cleared local hotel) if they are reluctant to come to the Embassy. As I learned in the 1980s via a common saying in the country then known as Zaire (another non-permissive environment), “Il y a toujours moyenne” (“There’s always a way.”) In the final analysis, development is all about personal relationships – and in creating and maintaining personal relationships, there is no substitute for face to face contact.

Finally, development professionals in non-permissive environments, and the senior officials to whom they report in their capitals, need to accept that there will always be significant inherent limits on their ability to gather and report accurate data on the results achieved by the programs they are funding. In some places, it is simply impossible to send expatriate employees to project sites to verify for themselves that what counterparts report is happening is in fact actually happening. In these circumstances, USAID officers have demonstrated exceptional creativity and resourcefulness in finding ways to acquire the reliable information they need. If U.S. civilians are not allowed to visit a particular area, they send local national employees (always, of course, in accordance with the applicable security protocols and with scrupulous attention to the safety of those employees). If U.S. government employees can’t go, they hire contractors. And if no one is allowed to visit, they rely on aerial photographs and other remote sensing techniques; Google Earth, in this context, becomes an incredibly valuable tool. In these circumstances, the services of experienced, expert private firms like DevTech Systems can be exceptionally useful to development agencies; firms like ours are skilled at both using advanced techniques for collecting data and in interpreting that data.

Leon S. Waskin is the Senior Director for Operations at DevTech Systems, Inc. He served as the USAID Mission Director in Afghanistan, and was the Coordinator for Economic and Development Assistance at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan.

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