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.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to refugees at a camp near Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, last August. After the trip she consulted with the Civilian Response Corps about next steps.
Courtesy of State Dept.
Keith Mines, a Civilian Response Corps member with extensive experience in Sudan, listens to local government officials in Omdurman, Sudan. Omdurman is the largest city in Sudan.
Courtesy of State Dept.
Kurt Müller is a member of the Civilian Response Corps's active force and was the first member to deploy to Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake. Here, he surveys damage in the Port-au-Prince area.

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.

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.

Creation of such a civilian corps received government approval in 2004, but it took until 2008 for the CRC to get a budget that allows it to begin building up its affiliations from different departments. This year, the corps has a $140 million budget, which provides funding for 264 permanent specialists and a standby force of 1,000 from eight agencies and departments.

More long term, the plan is to build a three-tier corps of 4,250 civilian experts, which would include a "reserve" corps, much like the military reserves.

But the CRC is not waiting for full implementation before participating in US interventions ranging from Afghanistan to Haiti. "As we are building it, we are starting to use it," Herbst says.

The Haiti effort, Herbst says, exemplifies what the CRC can do postdisaster. But, he says, it also serves as a pertinent reminder of the corps's conflict-prevention role. "How many times has the US intervened in Haiti?" he asks. "If we'd had this capability in the mid-'90s … the people with the right skills and the funding to enhance the skills of the government in Port-au-Prince, we might have had a stronger government better able to deal with the recent earthquake."

Another recent intervention by the CRC has been in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A dozen corps members are on the ground there, at the forefront of US efforts to help heal what is perhaps the world's deadliest conflict of the past decade. The team is tailored to address the country's most urgent flash points, which include gender violence and food security.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton identified those crucial needs during a trip to Congo in August 2009 and was subsequently able to call on the corps's expertise – something her predecessors could only dream of doing.

Afghanistan, meanwhile, looms large as a test case for the CRC: Will civilian specialists, working in tandem with the military, have a better chance of success at postconflict reconstruction than the military has had alone?

Afghanistan, in fact, represents the CRC's largest ongoing deployment – about 20 people. Last year, corps members set up a team to help with the organization of Afghanistan's national elections.

They also established a team to focus on strategic civilian-military planning – given that the US effort in Afghanistan will continue to be largely a military operation.

"The CRC folks like myself are the connective tissue" between the civilian and military efforts that include everything from countering Taliban propaganda to fostering the rule of law, says Jason Lewis-Berry, a State Department CRC member serving in Kandahar. "I've become a force multiplier for the wide community of people who come out here."

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