New State Department team to the rescue in disaster areas, war zones
The State Department's new Civilian Response Corps supplements US military efforts in disaster areas, such as Haiti, and war zones. It's still small but has the backing of top officials.
Within days of Haiti's devastating earthquake, more than 8,000 US military personnel were on the ground. The US Agency for International Development was designated as the lead American agency for Haiti relief.Skip to next paragraph
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Much less visible in the high-profile US intervention was another key group: the Civilian Response Corps – an innovative force that is starting to move in after disasters and conflicts around the world.
The CRC is made up of civilian specialists drawn from an array of US government agencies. Besides its focus on postdisaster and postconflict work, it is envisioned as an important tool in the emerging global emphasis on conflict prevention.
Just hours after the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti, the CRC was working with US government personnel already stationed in the country for development projects.
"Within a few days of the earthquake, a dozen members of the CRC were prepared for deployment to what has turned out to be one of our most sustained interventions so far," says Jean Pierre-Louis, a Haitian-American who is a "standby" member of the corps.
Mr. Pierre-Louis, who was on loan from the Department of Health and Human Services, deployed to Haiti for about a month. He helped needs-assessment teams as they looked at public-health issues and the concerns of small-business owners.
The need for a force of civilian experts to address various global problems became clearer after the huge challenges encountered by the US military in post-invasion Iraq. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in fact, has been a strong advocate for a civilian corps that would shift development and reconstruction duties away from the military. Already, for example, the CRC is involved in Afghanistan.
It is, in essence, a response to a destabilized, post-9/11 world order.
"The Civilian Response Corps is about conflict prevention, so that problems in some of these failed and failing states do not become major crises," says John Herbst, the State Department's coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization, who heads development of US civilian intervention capacity. "That really is smart power."
The notion of nation-building has been around – and largely pooh-poohed – for decades. But just as nation-building started to get more serious attention, America's capacity for civilian diplomatic and assistance was being gutted. By 2007, the total number of US foreign-service officers – about 6,600 – was smaller than the number of personnel of one aircraft carrier and its strike group, as Secretary Gates is fond of pointing out.
It took the "failures" of the US effort in postinvasion Iraq, Ambassador Herbst says, to shift the discussion in favor of a standing civilian corps. Congress originally gave a lukewarm response to funding requests from the State Department for increasing civilian capacities, but Gates has pushed the idea in speeches and on the Hill.
"We must focus our energies beyond the guns and steel of the military," he said in an oft-quoted speech in November 2007.