Andy Smith
MIne-action specialist
Why we need standards......


Humanitarian Demining

Part 14: Why we need.....

International Mine Action Standards

The need for there to be standards to apply during any regularly repeated process that delivers products to the general public is obvious to many people who live in developed industrial economies. Standards allow Quality Assured (QA) production and Quality Controls (QC) to be applied to the product, which can be ultimately advantageous to both producer and consumer.

The need for Standards is not so obvious in Humanitarian Demining (HD) because:

  • In many post-conflict regions, QA and QC are unfamiliar because they are not applied to other industrial activity;
  • The practice of HD varies from area to area and from country to country;
  • The product of HD (a depth that is clear of ALL explosive hazards) can vary from mined area to mined area;
  • There is no agreement over what constitutes an "acceptable risk" during the HD process;
  • What constitutes an "acceptable risk" for end-users of the land varies by context, so what is an acceptable depth of clearance varies from area to area and country to country;
  • There is no agreement between HD players over the best methods of achieving clearance;
  • No organisation is recognised as having the required skills to develop fixed standards;
  • No organisation has the internationally recognised authority to impose fixed standards;
  • HD activity is often funded for political reasons, with the quality of the product being relatively unimportant to those who foot the bill.

So are the IMAS just another paper trail...?

To understand why I (and many others) think that it is worth giving considerable time and effort to the improvement of International Mine Action Standards (IMAS), it is necessary to understand the context in which they came about.


Before there were standards.....

Throughout the 1990s demining was a hit and miss affair - nodding almost accidentally towards the"humanitarian" values that now distinguish it from military demining. Some claim that the HALO Trust first coined the term "Humanitarian demining" in the late 1980s, but I have always found that hard to believe. The word "demining" is more American than English, and I think that it came from the U.S. commercial RONCO's early involvement in Afghanistan supplying dogs to clear supply routes for the Mujahadeen. MAG were also involved in those early days - and probably the Humanitarian Demining industry was started by all three rather than any one group.

By the time I got involved in demining in 1994, the UN had become the most significant Humanitarian Demining player in terms of money and personnel under their direct or indirect control (particularly in Afghanistan, Cambodia and Mozambique). Led by seconded military officers, their effort was frequently muddled, confusing military with humanitarian demining. There was no standard way of surveying, marking, recording and clearing areas. There was no agreed protective equipment, tools or procedures. It was hard to get detailed information about the devices being looked for, and often hard to know whether an area had been previously cleared or not. No two organisations worked in the same way with the same equipment, and no two agreed on the minimum ground processing required to guarantee safe clearance. Most methods used at the time are now KNOWN not to have achieved real clearance.

The UN's costs were astonishly high, but their presence often served other political purposes which allowed real costs to be concealed behind in-kind donations of staff and equipment from serving military forces around the world. Meanwhile HALO and MAG competed for the charitable funds from European sources - and commercial groups began to appear and compete for other funds. MINETECH and MECHEM are the longest lived commercial successes, joined by BACTEC as time passed. Many others, from RimFire to MineSafe, Greenfields to ROMTEC came and went with varying degrees of visibility. New NGO players varied in size from NPA (who were early to stretch their development remit and get involved in demining around the world) through Handicap International to tiny MgM. When HD started in the former Yugoslavia, most new players were commercial and in the business to make money. In truth, even some of the NGOs are not above paying gross salaries to senior executives who do little and know less. We all need to earn a living and money is the main motivator for many. There are odd exceptions, like socialist NPA who began paying programme managers the same as Technical Advisors, (and paid both rather less than many others) but even NPA staff have to earn a living.

The start of Humanitarian Demining coincided with the end of the "Cold War" and a down-sizing of Western armies, which goes some way to explain why HD became dominated by ex-military characters. A few unashamedly combined more traditional mercenary activity with demining, and many others found the conversion to "humanitarian" difficult. Demining groups frequently had commanding officers who could not be questioned and imposed military discipline on subordinates who were not meant to question their orders. Many retained their uniform, ranks and military clearance drills, clinging to the familiar and rejecting any opportunity to learn.

Some of the commercial companies were efficient and introduced inspired cost-efficiencies. But some were neither efficient nor inspired, merely corrupt. I personally have encountered deminers setting charges to simulate destroying mines in a place where there were no mines but the company was being paid handsomely to clear there. Other cases of commercial companies laying mines in areas that had been cleared by their rivals were widely reported in the press. Many deminers were working without PPE, with dangerous tools and no proper medical backup and attacking the task in a manner that is hard to imagine today. Several times, I have found different groups clearing the same area for a different donor.

And much of this was also true in the UN programmes.

For the UN, the best PPE was usually some safety spectacles made for light-industrial use - which were simply incapable of doing the job safely. Record-keeping was muddled and a high staff turnover meant that information was frequently lost. The people in charge had been trained to do the best with what was available, and many sincerely did their best. They had not been trained to criticise in a way that might have stimulated the kind of change that was needed. Most kept quiet and eventually left for a less anarchic occupation.

For the NGOs, getting money from traditional development donors meant that many learnt to pay a hollow lip-service to development aims, such as capacity building and empowerment, without having any realistic means of measuring their achievements in these areas. By pretending to be working in those fuzzy areas they could conceal the ridiculously high cost of inefficient and sometimes amateur demining efforts. Others pretended a macho disinterest in political-correctness and vowed to work in areas too hazardous for others, proudly publishing their list of the "fallen" as if their fatalities were inevitable. Ironically, while Diana was being filmed in Angola, a spokesman for their NGO hosts gave lengthy BBC interviews about why they opposed a mine ban (an argument that could be reduced to:- "mines are obviously useful or else soldiers would not use them": this argument is actually true in unsophisticated conflicts).

In short, it was macho cowboy time and EVERYONE was one, both, or the other.... including me.

No one could agree on what constituted survey or clearance or even on how to mark areas that had been cleared. No one had any idea of what constituted appropriate training, which varied in duration from a few days to a few weeks. The training rarely included any knowledge of how the devices being sought actually worked, or how the tools being used worked. Most of the trainers did not know the basics themselves. Many had been given no appropriate preparation and did their best in difficult circumstances. The result was a mixture of the best and the worst of HD procedures and equipment, with no way to judge between them.

The donors became increasingly unhappy and some turned away from supporting any Humanitarian Demining. But it was not the donors who were the driving force behind the move to agree international standards for mine action.

It was the UN who were the driving force - and they asked members of the industry to tell them what the Standards should cover at the 1996 Copenhagen Conference. That was the first demining conference I had been invited to - and I did not go. My absence is convenient because the outcome was an embarrassment that my presence could have done nothing to change. When the UN asked members of the industry to attend, they did not ask real deminers, but their friends - the people in charge. The outcome was published in 1997 and demonstrated a general reluctance to stick out one's neck: "caution" was the order of the day. A clearance standard of 99.6% was agreed - despite there being no way that it could be checked or even aimed for (deminers always aim to clear everything for reasons of self-preservation if nothing else). Deminers were required to wear 13mm thick visors, combat helmets and virtual bomb-suits. The on-site safety distances between personnel that were required would have often made deploying an entire team at the same time impossible. And the helicopter CASEVAC requirements would have pushed everyone's costs through the roof.

The truth is that there was (and still is) resistance to anything that was not conventional military wisdom - usually based on NATO training - among the senior UN people. But it was our fault that those standards were so impractical because we did not have the arguments ready to persuade the managers that they were wrong. Most of the delegates were ex-military and, in the absence of compelling reasons to change, it was natural for them to default to the received wisdom of their military training and peace-time safety requirements.

The faults of the Copenhagen standards were obvious and devalued UN authority by demonstrating the they had their head in the clouds (or somewhere darker) and knew nothing about life at the sharp end.

After a little wriggling, UNMAS took that criticism on the chin and asked the newly formed Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) to help them do a better job. The usual suspects were rounded up to advise, and this time I was amongst them. By that time my Database of Demining Accidents had gone the rounds and people knew that I could often prove what the threats were, what the injuries were and what was going on at the time. This allowed me to have an influence on the PPE requirements, but I did not have the relevant experience to argue much on wider issues. The 2001 standards were a great improvement, but that is not to say very much. They were still deeply flawed. One of their strengths was that they included provision to be regularly updated - with updates passing through a Review Board which I was elected to serve on

Ten years on, I have been regularly flayed for the failings of the IMAS. I have also acquired experience at every level from UN country manager to Technical Advisor and trainer in many countries. With experience, I have been able to pay close attention to much wider issues in demining - and to try to represent the field needs across the spectrum. With the Review Board making changes each year, the IMAS have got better every year, but the process was slow and resistance to change was often very strong indeed. Review Board membership is an "honorary" role, and the membership changed regularly (without elections), but the International Standards did improve.

Unfortunately, they improved so much that the UN Mine Action Service, with GICHD, sought to resume "ownership". In 2010, they appointed a Steering Committee for the IMAS Review Board, and appointed each other to sit on it. By 2011 that steering committee had enginered the removal of the last of the Review Board's elected members and assumed a UN authority over the public statements of Review Board members. The last of the elected members was me.

Time will tell - but in my view this was a self-interested strategy designed to increase the authority of individuals at UNMAS and GICHD, creating unnecessary jobs and imposing expenses that the international community do not want or need. Inevitably, the authority of the IMAS will decline as a result of their myopic self-interest and the industry will take a step back towards the darkness (under UNMAS leadership again). See The Death of International Standards.


What the International Mine Action Standards (IMAS) actually were

The IMAS were deliberately structured to look like an International Standard - like an ISO. This was planned so that they could one day become just that, although that aim was quietly dropped when its complexity became apparent. They were an evolving guide to best practice. As a "guide", they had no legal authority - unless a donor gave money with the condition that the IMAS be applied - or unless a National Authority adopted all or part of the IMAS in National laws. By 2009, UNMAS itself had become the HMA actor that most frequently breached the IMAS. Sometimes this was by the appointment of ignorant people, and sometimes it appears to have been policy from above. A constant drive to improve "efficiency" led to the gross exaggeration of achievement year on year, and pressure to reduce the quality of the work so that the paper achievements could impress.

When a donor makes financial support conditional on the application of the IMAS (and many do) the IMAS have power. To avoid that power having retrograde consequences for an industry that was still feeling its way forward, most of the guidance in IMAS was not compulsory. One rule rarely fits all possible circumstances, so the field influence on the IMAS Review Board led to hundreds of original requirements being reduced to guidance as each IMAS was revised. In thousands of instances, the obligation implied by the word "shall" was replaced by the word "should".

The IMAS used the ISO convention of using the words SHALL and SHOULD with hugely varied weight. When the word SHALL was used, the guidance was not optional. To achieve IMAS compliance, the demining group MUST obey that injunction. When the word SHOULD was used, there was a lower degree of compulsion that was not (in my view) adequately explained. For me, the word SHOULD means that the demining group MUST comply unless they had a reason not to, and that reason was written down. This meant that the demining group's managers had to think about this, and if they decided that the IMAS guidance was inappropriate, they had to record a reason for thinking so. It did not have to be a "good" reason to anyone except the group and the National Mine Action Authority where they were working.

National Mine Action Authorities could vary the use of SHALL and SHOULD in their National Standards (Mozambique, for example, made it a requirement that blast resistant hand-tools SHALL be used). But National Mine Action Authorities frequently lack the power to actually enforce their own standards. When this occured, the power of the IMAS was simply ignored - even by the biggest names in the industry. Some seemed genuinely surprised when you point out their non-compliance, others have made a virtue of flouting the IMAS as often as they can. Deminers have died as a result.

Sadly, the cowboys are still out there at every level including UN programmes - which is why we need independent International Standards rather than U.N. standards.


What International Standards can be used to do....

If donors can be persuaded to accept that it is their responsibility to ensure that they get what they pay for, the IMAS can be used to make this industry viable and honourable. They can do this by:

  • providing a genuinely level playing field for the groups competing for a contract;
  • obliging reluctant groups to learn the shared lessons of the industry and move forward;
  • preventing the gold-diggers from cheating donors and giving the industry a bad name;
  • driving improvements in deminer safety and the efficient use of resources;
  • ensuring the integration of Mine Action activity with peace-building and post-conflict (re)development efforts;
  • sharing lessons learned from accidents and from mines left behind; and
  • reassuring donors and recipients about the quality of work done.

You could help make the Interenational Standards serve the Humanitarian Mine Action community better by letting the current UN IMAS Review Board know that you want genuinely international standards, not the current UNMAS and GICHD led reduction.


IMAS leadership?

Today, most countries that take external funding to solve their mine and ERW problem either adopt the IMAS as a National standard, or adapt the IMAS and make a separate set of National Mine Action Standards (NMAS). Countries are encouraged to develop NMAS because the problem and the appropriate solutions can vary greatly from country to country. While the IMAS present general guidelines that should apply anywhere, NMAS can be tailored for a particular country and so specify more requirements than general guidance. GICHD has long used this as an employment opportunity, offering to revise the standards for national authorities at a high cost.

Because the IMAS are now widely used, their "owners" UNMAS could have used that authority to have a greater influence that ever before. But Currently (2011) UNMAS shows no signs of enforcing the IMAS among the UN agencies with a hand in demining (UNMAS, UNDP, UNOPS, UNICEF and even WFP). This lack of internal authority mitigates against any instinct to allow them a wider authority. UNMAS controlled programmes breach the most fundamental principles of the IMAS in Sudan and elsewhere by reducing the requirements for "clearance" as defined in the IMAS. These failings show that UNMAS is not able to provide the leadership that the HMA industry needs. Meanwhile, GICHD is trying to be an alternative leader - and already claiming responsibility for the IMAS, a claim which is entirely unjustified. The success of the IMAS results from the involvement of a broad range of industry players on the IMAS Review Board, including many with relevant hands-on experience. While GICHD's current claim to IMAS authorship is disingenuous, the UN's claim to IMAS ownership is simply a lie.