Andy Smith
MIne-action specialist

What is wrong with the pursuit of efficiency in demining?

There is nothing wrong with working more efficiently as long as the quality of the end product remains the same. In demining, the quality of the end product is safety: the safety of deminers while they work and the safety of the people who will use the land after it has been released. Those who lose sight of the end product in pursuit of efficiency are ignoring the reason for conducting humanitarian demining in the first place.

Many people who have set themselves up to control demining, principally bureaucrats and funders, have made the pursuit of cost-efficiency their reason to exist. Without understanding the actual activities on the ground, it is natural that they should want to do something to justify their expensive “management” roles. Seeing efficiency as nothing more than cost-saving, they demand constant increases in cost-efficiency.

So demining has to be increasingly cheap. If it is safe as well, that’s good, but few give the same priority to safety as they do to cost. This is obvious because they do not insist on the recording of accidents or any other audit of safety. The managers measure success in terms of the area of land released to the community, regardless of the safety of that process. Some argue that demining is intrinsically hazardous and we should accept losses amongst our deminers as inevitable. Others argue that anything we do is better than nothing, so leaving explosive hazards behind in areas we have supposedly “cleared” is no big deal. The former attitude has got worse since the industry stopped gathering and sharing detailed accident reports in 2011. The latter has got worse since the new term “Land Release” allowed the cost-efficiency hunters to formalize a process of releasing land that has not been cleared, so encouraging the population to use hazardous land that they had previously avoided.

The pursuit of cost-saving runs parallel to the pursuit of speed. Myopic industry leaders promise that we will solve the problem in ten years – as long as we reduce out standards to get there. These people are short-sighted because there is no chance of completing the clean-up after conflict within ten years when so many conflicts are ongoing. Deminers do not only clear landmines, they clear all explosive remnants of war – and because most civilian casualties are caused by explosive devices that are not mines, this is really important. The deminers’ work will not be over until the human race learns to stop having wars. Even if we limit the goal to clearing landmines (an absurdity when minefields are strewn with other explosive items) there are many massive mined areas left to clear. Examples are the mine-swamp between North and South Korea, the Line-of-control between Pakistan and India, the borders of Russia, China, Iraq/Iran Turkey, much of the country of Myanmar, etc, etc. So, even if we narrow the ten-year promise to the removal of anti-personnel landmines, the promise looks as if it were made by an ill-informed child.

I am ashamed to admit that a lot of Humanitarian Mine Action no longer deserves the title “humanitarian”. Worse, I am deeply saddened to see some of the former NGO leaders in the industry endorsing the lies of bureaucrats and cost-efficiency hunters.