Andy Smith
Mine action specialist

GICHD - still not fit for purpose?

GICHD is the Geneva Centre for Humanitarian Demining (also known affectionately as the GiHAD - for reasons explained below). UNMAS is the UN Mine Action Service

There are many definitions of 'not fit for purpose', and all depend on what the original 'purpose' of the organisation was.

In this case, GICHD was established in the '90s to serve the needs of the emerging Humanitarian Demining community. It was established by people who had become disenchanted by the UN bureaucracy in New York and wanted to inject a sense of urgency and professionalism into the demining effort. I know this because I was asked to support the initiative, which I did. Effectively, GICHD was established to support the professional growth of Humanitarian Demining with objective R&D that served those in the field who needed answers. Switzerland gave offices and a nominal leadership. Other countries gave staff or project specific funds.

Humanitarian Demining (HD) became Humanitarian Mine Action (HMA) covering the five pillars of Mine Action identified in the Ottawa Convention (AP Mine Ban Treaty). GICHD was established and its crowning achievement was to draw together all sections in the industry and draft International Standards – providing a 'baseline' against which donors could begin to make informed decisions about where best to put their money. I was invited to be a part of the drafting process and then elected to serve unpaid on the IMAS Review Board. The Board was supposed to rotate members regularly but I was continually invited to stay on. I like to think that this was because I actually cared about the Standards and worked hard to improve them. Anyway, after 11 years I had become the longest serving member of the IMAS board before I was obliged to maintain my independence by resigning when the acting head of UNMAS sought to censor me (a career bureaucrat, he was rather clueless and later left HMA himself).

GICHD was also intended to rotate staff regularly, constantly bringing new field experience to the centre – but that requirement became lost in the 'club' atmosphere of comfortable living that staff were understandably reluctant to give up. It was also supposed to attract funding for its work – and initially it was 'rich'. However, the staff given as 'in-kind' donations were rarely worth having and the support slowly shrank. Donors are generally reluctant to acknowledge that their funds have been misdirected – but those with objectivity began to see that, after a good start, GICHD had lost its way. How did that happen? The answer is a matter of opinion. Mine is that unimaginative leadership led to rapid stagnation and an increasingly desperate search for purposes that could raise their status or generate income while offending no-one.

The industry’s accident database provides a fine example of their desire for a role conflicting with their determination to avoid controversy. I had established the Database of Demining Accidents (DDAS) in 1998 and published it in 1999. By 2002, GICHD was keen to take the database over. The UK government funded them to do so and I was contracted to maintain it. Obviously, if I could do it alone and unpaid it must be easy, so GICHD took responsibility for gathering accident data while I just had to enter it and update the database. Over more than two years they gathered no data at all, so I took it over again and continued alone and unpaid. Why did they gather no data? Because the accident database was opposed by the leaders of some INGOs (I was told that this included HALO and MAG) and GICHD did not want to lose their support. Their primary goal was to be a 'safe pair of hands' that never 'rocked the boat'. Laudable, but perhaps not the best formula for leadership as this new 'industry' grew.

So I kept the database going with no support from GICHD. I did have erratic letters of support from UNMAS but I had to earn a living and finding time to gather data became increasingly difficult.  I had the support of some individuals, and of some organisations, notably the INGOs NPA and DDG, and the Afghans in MACCA who were as supportive as one might expect from professionals at that time. Meantime, evidence from the database was used to inform revisions to the IMAS and improvements in deminer safety by responsible field operatives.

Increasingly desperate for a purpose, GICHD wanted to take the database back. It is expensive and time consuming to try to keep the database updated so I was happy to accept that but, given previous experience, I imposed the condition that they maintained it. They could not realistically promise to do that because they had no money and no real understanding of how to use it. I told them they could not have it unless they guaranteed its maintenance.

This coincided with UNMAS being under the temporary leadership of the man who later forced me out of the IMAS Review Board.  At GICHD’s request (I was there), he asked GICHD to establish a database of accidents to replace the DDAS.

GICHD did so and told MACS and INGOs not to pass data to me any more. Their replacement was called RAPID and was intended to provide a quick and simple way of recording accidents in a tick-box format.

Unlike the DDAS, RAPID has never been published. I thought this was because they had been so bad at gathering data (and they have) but if you were to look at the RAPID database today you would rapidly see other reasons for keeping it under wraps. The first thing you would notice is that it is a simple spreadsheet. They took all the accident records I had written in the DDAS – copying the unique accident ID number and Victim ID numbers that I had assigned – and reduced each detailed accident record to a few words. The more information there is about an event, the more can be learned – and some of the most useful reports in the DDAS run to more than 40 pages. GICHD threw that information away, so demonstrating that they had no intention of recording data so that it might be used to prevent future accidents. Anyone in demining would also see that their 'tick-box' options do not provide intelligent or informed choices. For example, the choice of activity at the time of the accident is so limited that no distinction is made between excavating an area with REDS rakes or excavating a metal-detector signal with a garden trowel. The lack of injuries in accidents that occur when using rakes is important to know – as is the severity of injury when using a short gardening trowel. GICHD do not record this. They have simplified all the available data to the point of it being inaccurate, unreliable and dangerously misleading. Their RAPID database is a spreadsheet that could have been better designed by many schoolchildren. It has moved the HMA industry backward.

It is no surprise that researchers working for Mine Action still approach me to use the DDAS because they find that RAPID is either inaccessible or can tell them nothing of value.

What GICHD have chosen to replace the DDAS with is just one illustration of the way that the organisation has become 'not fit for purpose'. Most high-risk international activities require actors to share accident data and learn from errors, but not UNMAS or GICHD. However, GICHD can now proudly make the empty claim that 'GICHD keeps a database of accidents'. Sigh.

Read what GICHD does dare to publish about all mine action issues and you will see many examples of reasonable, if superficial, research that fails to reach any conclusion that is of any use to field operatives. I believe that this results partly from a desire not to offend anyone 'important' and partly from a fear of writing anything that may later need to be changed. Even children know that making and correcting error is the way to learn, but GICHD is a 'club' of instant experts who could never admit fallibility (most of whom could not tell a mine from a tobacco tin). Then there is the objectionable influence of 'in-house' nepotism when the interests of GICHD club members are allowed to over-ride any semblance of objectivity. The premature promotion of REST and the uncritical publicity granted to using cane-rats for explosive detection despite their inability to do the job are examples of this.

GICHD’s influence is waning. This is fortunate because it suffers weak (or absent) leadership that has allowed self-interest and incompetence to render it close to useless. Their lack of credibility extends to UNMAS, which was supposed to provide overall leadership to GICHD. It cannot do this because they share club members. Staff who survive either bureaucracy long enough are rewarded with positions of power that they are ill-equipped to use effectively. Yes, some of these are good people protecting their families and pensions above all else, but unfortunately that does not make them 'fit for purpose'.

Both GICHD and UNMAS are 'not fit for purpose'.  They have both achieved things of value, but only a fraction of what could have been achieved if their cosy club were disbanded and reformed using committed professionals able to acknowledge and correct error. There is a need to get rid of those who think it is correct to always defend the club (no matter how indefensible) and to employ new blood that is honest enough to know that 'transparency' means you can see everything (rather than being so transparent that it cannot be seen at all). GICHD or UNMAS cannot decide to do this because many of them would lose their comfortable jobs. So it seems that all we can do is ignore them and let their influence and funding support fade away. Pity, there are one or two people there who deserve better.

From the start, neither UNMAS nor GICHD were obvious leaders of Humanitarian Mine action. But the cowboy antics I was part of in the '90s did cry out for some kind of organisation and leadership. I supported the start of GICHD at the same time as I had high hopes of the Americans (at a time when the USA both wanted a role and did not presume to have the answers). But then the US administration changed, the towers came down and the world changed. So I started to hope that UNDP might take the helm and worked with them to encourage this, but I failed comprehensively. UNDP has dithered over withdrawing entirely from Humanitarian Mine Action just at the time when people have realised that effective peace-building needs demining and development efforts to be intimately combined. Their timing reflects sadly on the limited vision of UNDP's leadership, so perhaps it is just as well they are no longer a leadership option. Fact is, we do not really need leadership from any UN organisation - as several big names in HMA have long argued - but we do need much better leadership than the kind offered by the 'Saints'.

Donors please note: we need to establish one or more alternative organisation to provide a lead in Humanitarian Mine Action. These should have experienced field-actors in control and should earn respect before assuming authority. Only donors can make this happen. They should because the current leadership's incompetence, secrecy and 'economy with the truth' costs them dearly, and also costs the lives and limbs of those that HMA was established to protect.

*The GiHAD was originally a typo in someone else's 2002 email. Not really funny, it has stuck partly because you can say it out loud as one word (unlike GICHD) but mainly because it annoys some of those working there. My Moslem friends tell me that a GiHAD implies a good thing, so is no insult. When used to describe GICHD, the term GiHAD has no religious undertones. It simply means a group with all the answers who live high up in the mountains, far from the real world and tell the people at the sharp end what they must do (without much success). GICHD does include some good people, so it is an organisation that I ask you to treat with understanding as you might a child whose high aspirations have been frustrated by lamentably low achievement.

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