NGO's In Stability Operations: Unity of Effort

Our world is increasingly complex. Gone are the days when an NGO could operate in conflict zones or areas of instability without significant risks and physical, reputational and/or unintended consequences. Today more than ever, militaries and NGOs are embracing the need for stability operations that deliver a holistic interagency approach unified behind the common goal of sustained peace.  

Each player is an integral part of these operations, and while there are unique challenges for NGOs, we must work together to secure fragile communities from the rising threats posed by conflict and disaster. We do this in three ways: engaging in conflict prevention and resolution; taking part in conflict intervention; and participating in post-conflict reconstruction and stabilization. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright testified recently before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on International Operations and Terrorism: “Our international assistance programs are not money down a rat hole. They are poison down the snake hole of terrorism; helping to choke off the hatred, ignorance, and desperation of upon which terrorism feeds.”

Afghanistan is an example of how in an unstable environment plagued by conflict and disaster, lack of a reliable and effective central government creates a power vacuum waiting to be filled by any group willing to provide a semblance of order and, more importantly, offer basic needs.

During the Soviet invasion, many Afghans became refugees, fleeing to neighboring countries. Large numbers landed in similarly rural areas such as the province of North Waziristan in Pakistan.   These refugees were aided by groups such as the Taliban, who already had established infrastructures that were, in many ways, a more efficient social support organization than the local or state government.

The collapse of the Soviet invasion left a country in civil war; the returning Afghan refugees who had spent years in the madrassas returned home to places like Kandahar, and were quickly struck by the overall lawlessness and corruption.   

The Taliban moved into Kandahar and put Sharia law into place in an attempt to bring order and justice to the region. The local population responded to the new sense of order and security. Meanwhile, the Mujahedeen had moved into the government in Kabul but were not much stronger than the previous regime. The Taliban associated this fledgling government with Westerners and the Soviets, and these differing approaches led to lingering conflict at the conclusion of the Civil War.

As the Taliban slowly pushed the Mujahedeen back into the North, people saw that every province taken over by the Taliban became more peaceful and necessities like food and water were available. Hence, the population supported the Taliban ”revolution.” 

NGOs should coordinate with international organizations and state actors to educate and support refugee populations, avoiding their exploitation by insurgent and terrorist entities. 

Militaries have evolved beyond their traditional kinetic operations and frequently engage in humanitarian assistance, disaster response and reconstruction activities. However, this shift comes with significant risk, particularly with unintended consequences, for example local communities are targeted if assisted by military actors. Hence, a true interagency approach that is balanced, aligned and well controlled will help fulfill the three-pronged approach mentioned above while mitigating risks as much as possible.

Has this approach ever worked?  South Korea was once one of the poorest nations – war torn, lacking infrastructure and natural resources. Enemies surrounded the country and the people were demoralized. So why is South Korea thriving today? This success story is the result of a large-scale multiagency coordinated effort incorporating kinetic intervention, military training, investment in necessary institutions, and the creation of an economic foundation over a generation.

As security and governance fail, public services are the first to fold. Indeed, competition for finite resources can perpetuate conflict. As NGOs, this is where we can engage directly and work to alleviate the immediate suffering by providing water, food, shelter, emergency health care, and sanitation. However, an NGO with a stability operation background will not only focus on the immediate relief of the people, but also plan and execute sustainable access to these basic needs while helping to address the underlying causes.

An examination of insurgencies groups around the world shows how different they are and how NGOs cannot go in with a “one size fits all” solution. For example, the Islamic State leadership is well educated and technologically savvy. NGOs working in these areas have to understand the genesis and intent of these groups if they want to understand how to create stability and not allow such insurgencies to gain a foothold.

Broadly, stability operations can be considered successful if there is decreasing violence and an increasing move towards normalization of the state in question. Kinetic intervention occurs first and as security improves, NGOs come in and normalization activities take place. The U.S. Military conducts all stability operations through a platform of principles, which, when combined and executed effectively, will produce long-lasting stability. These principles are

  • Conflict transformation - The process by which de-escalation occurs, including the reduction of sources of instability and the development of viable and peaceful alternatives for dialogue and constructive resolution.
  • Unity of effort and unity of purpose - Uniting all of the diverse actors into one purpose, which can only be achieved through an understanding of each actor’s strengths and weaknesses, and then forging a cohesive operational unit regardless of the command structure.
  • Legitimacy and host-nation ownership - History leaves us a clear legacy of the importance of legitimate action and host-nation ownership. Without these factors, trust and confidence, the cornerstones of any local operations, will be forgone. The host-nation must be the architect in defining what a stable state means in their environment, and their views must be respected by all involved.
  • Building partner capacity - A stable state must be self-sufficient, especially from a military and rule of law perspective. However, every aspect of a stability operation must include local actors from conception through execution.

Progression through these phases creates five outcomes of stability, with the third and fifth being the most significant for NGO direct involvement:

  • A safe and secure environment - Creation of a safe and secure environment is essential for stability and the application of the full spectrum of operations. In many instances, the origin of the issue has left a security vacuum, and existing (remaining) apparatus may be ineffective, corrupt or unprepared for the current state. Increasingly, out-of-state actors, particularly insurgents and terrorists, jeopardize security.
  • Established rule of law - To bolster the safety and security of the local population, it is imperative that a rule of law is established and upheld rigorously. This often includes the transfer from military to host-nation law, as well as the capture and subsequent punishment of those who stand accused of war crimes, reinforcing that order has been restored.
  • Social well-being - The immediate needs are food, water, shelter, sanitation, and health care. Local and international organizations can quickly meet these needs once security is assured and will begin to implement sustainable assistance programs and assist with any displaced civilians. This can be accomplished more quickly if NGOs take advantage of the logistical and operational capabilities of military assets.
  • Stable governance – This involves the establishment of stable governments with legitimate systems of political representation at the national, regional, and local levels. In a stable government, the host-nation population regularly elects a representative legislature according to established rules and in a manner generally recognized as free and fair. Legislatures must be designed consistently with a legal framework and legitimate constitution. Additionally, officials must be trained, processes created, and rules established.
  • A sustainable economy – Typically, economies suffer from considerable structural problems after conflict/disaster; paradoxically, these situations create an environment where rapid growth can be achieved and income inequality can be readily addressed. In this arena, it’s important to recognize that international intervention can lead to short-term improvements, but for true resilience and sustainability, entrepreneurial locals should spur the local economy. Key to our success is a holistic approach that includes regulatory reform, anti-corruption initiatives, sustainable environmental policies and long-term planning.

Successful outcomes such as those outlined above can only be achieved through continuous coordination and cooperation among all the actors involved. As the U.S. National Security Strategy states, “Our Armed Forces will always be the cornerstone of our security, but they must be complemented. Our security also depends on diplomats who can act in every corner of the world, from grand capitals to dangerous outposts; development experts who can strengthen governance and support human dignity.”[1]

This coordination and cooperation is achieved through a unity of effort that helps leaders overcome a number of obstacles such as internal discord; inadequate structures and procedures; incompatible or underdeveloped communications infrastructure; cultural differences; and bureaucratic and personnel limitations.

Unity of effort is challenging to all the actors involved, foreign and domestic, but can be greatly assisted by adhering to these concepts:

  • Agreed-to authorities
  • Assigned support relationships
  • Joint planning
  • Structure and mechanisms to execute

If all actors are on the same page, these concepts lead the way to the goal of unity of effort. In other words, if each actor plans individually, unity of effort is virtually impossible; however, if all actors plan together, there is a better chance unity will be achieved.

Of course, the nature and focus of stability operations is constantly changing and leads us to identify four major obstacles that need to be addressed by all participating actors in order to attain a unified effort:

  • Financial Constraints – Under normal circumstances, an NGO’s financial resources are finite and small compared to the overall stability operation budget of the U.S. Military. In addition, the number of donors who understand and/or are willing to provide monies is exceptionally limited.  
  •  Personnel Constraints – Typically, an NGO is operated at a steady state level with limited surge capacity. Therefore, participation in a stability operation will almost certainly deflect resources from other initiatives/communities, and will require NGOs to band together and/or consider the use of contractors, as has been seen at USAID. With particular regard to conflict zones and the rise of attacks on NGO workers, it is likely that a considerable portion of staff will opt not to engage in specific countries, as is their right.
  • Planning Differences - NGOs and the military undertake differing approaches to planning. In essence, the military conducts in-depth planning at a macro level while NGOs plan at the programmatic level and rarely consider the whole. There are inherent conflicts between the drive for rapid progress and sustainable, long-term programming.
  • Neutrality - In today’s world, NGOs are wrestling with their stance on neutrality, with the primary concern being that political and military objectives may be in conflict with development objectives. For example, many failed or failing communities are home to insurgencies and the U.S. Military may advocate a “carrot and stick” strategy that rewards communities that do not support insurgents; however, NGOs typically operate under principles that would prohibit the restriction of offering assistance to those same communities.  

Success in this approach depends upon the ability of civilians and military forces to plan jointly and respond quickly and effectively through an integrated, interagency approach to a fundamentally dynamic situation. Success factors include:

  • Planning - The planning must be conducted with all actors present; together, they complete detailed analyses of the situation and operational environments, develop integrated courses of action, and continuously assess the situation. These actions ensure that the various capabilities and activities are focused on achieving specific conflict transformation goals with host-nation and international partners. Furthermore, the types of tools utilized should be revisited and adopted by all applicable actors. There also should be an investment by the Department of Defense to transform their tools to be applicable at the civilian level without reducing the functionality of their version.
  • Sharing of information and resources - All resources are in finite supply, whether they are financial, military, intelligence, law enforcement, diplomatic, developmental, or strategic communication. In order to succeed, all actors must be willing and have the ability to share information and resources amongst each other. This sharing can be achieved through regular meetings, formal agreements, assignment of coordinators or liaison staff, or even developing common communication or information technology platforms.
  • Understanding - The diversity of approach, capabilities and capacities is considerable, and, therefore, interagency training is a critical success factor and should not be limited to merely an annual program. For key agencies, there should be intensive embedding periods between all actors to facilitate a deeper level of understanding. There must be active collaboration and dialogue with nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations, the host-nation government, and the private sector.

The mission of NGOs and their partners is lofty. According to the U.S. National Security Strategy, “Our diplomacy and development capabilities must help prevent conflict, spur economic growth, strengthen weak and failing communities, lift people out of poverty, combat climate change and epidemic disease, and strengthen institutions of democratic governance.”[2] Successfully executing this mission requires a unity of effort that will not only serve those in fragile communities, but will also help strengthen our national security exponentially. Balancing the resources, capabilities, and activities that reinforce progress made by the military kinetic operations while enabling success through the non-kinetic.

Essentially, all actors involved in stability operations must:

  • Be represented, integrated, and actively involved in the process
  • Develop and maintain a shared understanding of the situation and problem
  • Strive for unity of effort to achieving a common goal
  • Integrate and synchronize capabilities and activities
  • Collectively determine the resources, capabilities, and activities necessary to achieve their goals
  • Allocate resources to ensure continuation of information sharing, common understanding, and integrated efforts

Ultimately, stability operations aim to create conditions that the local populace regards as legitimate, acceptable, and predictable. Stability seeks to first lessen the level of violence. It aims to enable the functioning of governmental, economic, and societal institutions. Stability also encourages the general adherence to local laws, rules, and norms of behavior.

Today, as U.S. and international forces lighten their on-the-ground footprint in Afghanistan, Linking the World is part of the unity of effort for the next phase of stability operations. We are committed to bolstering our efforts so all the sacrifice; investment and advancements are not lost. 

The sources for this article are the Rand Monograph “Integrating Civilian Agencies in Stability Operations” by Thomas S. Szayna, Derek Eaton, James E. Barnett, Brooke Stearns Lawson, Terrence K. Kelly and Zachary Haldeman, published September 18, 2013; and Army Doctrine Reference Publication 3-07 Stability, published August 31, 2012.

[1] “Obama’s Introduction to National Security Strategy Report,” May 27, 2010,

[2] National Security Strategy, The White House, Washington, D.C., May 27, 2010.