The 19th August is World Humanitarian Day, which celebrates all aid and health workers providing life-saving support and protection to people most in need. For decades the UK Armed Forces have been at the forefront of providing humanitarian support, both at home and overseas.
At its heart, the UK Armed Forces’ primary role is to keep people safe. They defend UK interests and support peacekeeping efforts, providing vital assistance in response to natural or human-made disasters. In these situations, people from across the military services will deploy almost immediately to tackle food and water shortages, lack of sanitation and damaged infrastructure. In recent years they have helped with floods in the UK, the Ebola outbreak in Africa and hurricanes in the Caribbean. Their professionalism has saved countless lives and helped to rebuild devastated communities.
On the international stage, the UK Armed Forces actively contribute to disaster-relief efforts, and World Humanitarian Day is the ideal opportunity to recognise their contribution. Of course, people in uniform rarely seek praise, seeing their actions instead as simply “doing a good job”. However, COVID-19 has meant the British public has seen first-hand the crucial role our Armed Forces have played in keeping the country going during the pandemic.
Operation Rescript is the biggest ever homeland military operation in peacetime, involving up to 23,000 personnel in the COVID Support Force (CSF). The NHS Nightingale Hospitals across England were built rapidly with the support of the Brigade of Gurkhas, Royal Anglian Regiment, Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers. In addition, the Royal Logistics Corps led with sourcing and delivering PPE to the NHS, and the RAF supported the East of England Ambulance Service.
In Scotland, the CSF provided similar support with the temporary hospital NHS Louisa Jordan Hospital at the SEC Centre in Glasgow. While in Wales, the CSF helped transform Cardiff’s Principality Stadium into Dragon’s Heart Hospital. Although no temporary hospitals were built in Northern Ireland, the CSF did give advice and deployed military medics to work alongside civilian healthcare staff.
The Armed Forces have been essential in providing tests through their ongoing work supporting test centres. In Liverpool, over 2,000 soldiers from 16 units were involved in a testing pilot scheme, which helped to reduce the infection rate from 680 per 100,000 people to less than 100. As a consequence, these units were awarded the Freedom of Liverpool.
Deputy Mayor Wendy Simon said: “We owe the British Army troops an incredible debt of gratitude”. She added: “We have had so many compliments about their patience, helpfulness and professionalism in supporting people through the process of having a test.”
Since December 2020, the Armed Forces have also supported the vaccination rollout across the UK. Officers have been a critical component of Operation Rescript, using their leadership training and planning experience to work closely alongside civilian agencies to deliver complex projects. From Brigadier Phil Prosser, Commander of Military Support to the Vaccine Delivery Programme, to platoon commanders deployed to test centres, officers have worked tirelessly to ensure the military response has truly delivered for the NHS and the British public.
With the Armed Forces so heavily involved in humanitarian efforts, it is unsurprising that many officers pursue civilian careers in that same area. Many charities and NGOs have recruited former officers into key positions because they recognise the value of their unique qualities.
Jonathan Singh is a former RAF pilot who left in 2012. He read for an MSc in International Relations and transitioned into the international development and humanitarian assistance sectors. Jonathan is the Country Director for a large INGO in Nigeria, managing a team of over 300 and a budget of around $10m. He participated in an OA webinar on his career journey. Watch now.
When asked about working in the sector, Jonathan said: “It’s incredibly exciting, you’re working with well-motivated and engaged people from all over the world. It’s very rewarding and fulfilling but there are downsides to it; a lack of stability, a lack of the normal comforts in life.”
For former officers considering a career in this area, Jonathan gave the following advice: “Think about what you can contribute”.
Another former officer in a senior leadership position in humanitarian assistance is Major-General James Cowan. During his distinguished military career, he was Commander of 11th Light Brigade and led Task Force Helmand in the 2009-10 campaign, and was responsible for the military contribution to the London 2012 Olympics. James retired from the Army in 2015 and became the Chief Executive of the HALO Trust.
Over the last 30 years, the HALO Trust has removed the debris left behind by war. The Trust has destroyed over 1.5 million landmines, 11 million pieces of large calibre ammunition and 200,000 cluster munitions (explosive weapons). James manages a global workforce of around 8,500 people in 25 countries.
In a recent interview with Jonathan Bowman-Perks MBE, James, when asked what leadership qualities gained in the military have helped in his current role, stated: “I do think that the capacity to think through the problem and apply the solution is really important.”
There are even humanitarian organisations that specialise in capitalising on veterans’ skills. For example, RE:ACT is an emergency and crisis response charity, which recruits veterans and trains them into humanitarians. They believe that military skills, such as situational awareness, problem-solving and teamwork, are ideal for responding effectively to complex emergencies.
Officers are ideally suited to many roles in the humanitarian sector, from project management to security. As the world continues to adapt to living with COVID-19, more former officers will undoubtedly join organisations dedicated to helping people facing emergency situations. The skills gained while serving will prove indispensable in future disaster-relief efforts.