Why we needed standards......

Andy Smith


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 hazard free depth) can vary from minefield to minefield;
  • 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 product of HD varies from area to area and country to country;
  • There is no agreement between HD players over the best methods of achieving search and clearance;
  • No organisation is recognised as having the required skills to develop standards;
  • No organisation has the internationally recognised authority to impose 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 the IMAS, it is necessary to understand the context in which they came about.


Before there were standards.....

TThroughout the1990s 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 SAINTS 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 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 marking, recording and clearing areas. There was no agreed protective equipment, tools or drills. It was hard to get detailed information about the devices being looked for, and often hard to know whether an area had been 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.

The UN's costs were 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 the SAINTS 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, SCS to Greenfields and 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 paid programme managers about the same as Technical Advisors, (and paid both less than many others) but even NPA staff had to earn a living.

The start of Humanitarian Demining coincided with the end of the "Cold War" and a downsizing 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 minefield breaching drills, clinging to the familiar.

Some of the commercial companies were efficient and introduced inspired cost-efficiencies. But some were neither efficient nor inspired, merely corrupt. I personally 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.... Commercial 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 and NGO 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, such as the SAINTS, 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 with the SAINTS in Angola, a spokesman (Tim Porter) gave lengthy BBC interviews about why the SAINTS 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, but it was typical of the SAINTS to very publicly oppose the interests of the industry).

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 the people in charge. The outcome was published in 1997 and demonstrated a general reluctance to stick out one's neck: "caution" became 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). 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 British 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.

The faults of the Copenhagen standards were obvious and devalued UN authority by demonstrating the they had their head in the clouds, knowing 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 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 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

Four years on, I have been regularly flayed for the failings of the current IMAS. This has made me 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 do get better every year, but the process is slow and resistance from some of the old players in this industry is very strong indeed. Review Board membership is an "honorary" role, and we rarely get an active and informed membership, but the Standards are improving.

What the IMAS actually are

The IMAS are deliberately structured to look like an International Standard - like an ISO. This was planned so that they could one day become just that. In the meantime, they are an evolving guide to best practice. As a "guide", they have no legal authority - unless a donor gives money with the condition that the IMAS be applied - or unless a National Authority adopts all or part of the IMAS in National laws.

When a donor does make 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 is still feeling its way forward, most of the guidance is not compulsory.

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

National Mine Action Authorities can vary the use of SHALL and SHOULD in their National Standards (Mozambique, for example, makes 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 occurs, the power of the IMAS is simply ignored - even by the biggest names in the industry. Some seem genuinely surprised when you point out their non-compliance, others make a virtue of flouting the IMAS as often as they can. For example, the worst deliberately and proudly take higher risks than others and then refuse to provide a dedicated ambulance vehicle unless required to do so by the National Authority. Deminers have died as a result.

Sadly, the cowboys are still out there, big names included - which is why we need the IMAS and why we need the IMAS to grow in stature and begin to show some teeth.

What the IMAS could 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 could do this by:

  • providing a genuinely level playing field for the groups competing for a clearance Task;
  • 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;
  • sharing lessons learned from accidents and from mines left behind;
  • reassuring donors and recipients about the quality of work done.

Anyone could help make the IMAS serve the Humanitarian Mine Action community better by letting the IMAS Review Board know where they are wrong, unworkable, or incomplete... but people rarely have.

I left the IMAS Review Board in 2011 when I allowed myself to be manipulated into leaving. The original aims and intents had been lost when a surge of UNMAS bureaucracy had appointed self serving members to a sinecure position that allowed them to share the "success" of the IMAS. The IMAS became UN standards, not genuine International standards, and from that time onward respect for the IMAS has been in general decline. For my view of this, see Death of the IMAS.htm.