Humanitarian contingency plans for military operations


What lessons have been identified from previous humanitarian contingency planning exercises in advance of large-scale military operations?


The majority of the literature seems to focus on humanitarian contingency planning for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and other older cases such as Kosovo. It is difficult to identify what pre-planning may or may not have been undertaken, as political sensitivities and the tendency for military secrecy around large-scale military operations means that few specific details are publicly available. However, a number of organisations have conducted evaluations, including independent evaluations, of their planning and preparation. Others have also reflected on lessons learned in grey and academic literature.

Contingency planning needs to consistently: integrate gender and protection issues; consider low probability events that would have high risk; anticipate a large outflow of refugees where there are large numbers of internally displaced persons; and should not neglect the medium and longer term. Lessons learned include:

  • Good expertise and political analysis, from all actors involved is required to properly assess the situation on the ground. Decisions made at higher levels may be less accurate as to the situation on the ground.
  • Effective coordination requires all agencies, including the military, to engage in transparent planning. It also requires coordination mechanisms to be clear and for roles to be clarified to avoid confusion in the field. This can be time-consuming.
  • Local actors often have greater acceptance within communities than new agencies coming to deliver aid, and should be identified as potential partners in advance. For external agencies, an established presence and existing relationships with local partners are important for preparedness and response.
  • Mapping can help indicate what supplies are available locally and where IDPs may flee following military action. Pre-positioning humanitarian supplies at the local level prior to military action can assist emergency response.
  • Military forces should have a good knowledge of how international relief operations function and respect their principles in order to work well together. High turnover of troops may require frequent training for new military actors.


Suggested citation

Rohwerder, B. (2016). Humanitarian contingency plans in advance of military operations (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1394). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.