ALLIES conference panel speaks on disaster response

Tufts Alliance Linking Leaders in Education and the Services (ALLIES) hosted its first annual Civil-Military Relations Conference this past Friday and Saturday. The conference, titled “In Case of Emergency: Civil-Military Relations and Disaster Response,” featured a panel of disaster relief professionals.

“We wanted this conference to be more of a ‘voices from the field’ type event, in which we bring in people from across the humanitarian aid and disaster relief field to talk about their experiences responding to natural disasters,” ALLIES Conference Co-Director William Beckham said.

The panelists included keynote speaker Col. Wiley Thompson, chair of the Geography and Environmental Engineering Department at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and Michael Marx, senior civil-military coordination adviser for the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“We tried to bring in people who had a very diverse range of experiences and a diverse group of perspectives,” Tufts ALLIES Co-Director Joseph Sax said.

According to Sax, a senior, this year’s conference theme was in part inspired by “Armed Humanitarians: The Rise of the Nation Builders,” a book by Nathan Hodge that explores the potentially troubling consequences of humanitarian assistance in disaster relief.

“We thought, ‘This is a real conversation we should have with people on both the military and civilian side,’” he said. “We hope students learn[ed] a lot about the initial controversies should the military be involved in disaster response. We hope to inform peoples’ understanding of how emergency disaster response works — at Tufts, I think it’s a question people have a fairly substantial amount.”

Beckham, a senior, added that the goal of the conference was to spark thought and debate regarding how all these different organizations are able to join together for the specific cause of humanitarian relief and whether or not they should be doing so at all.

“When you have institutions and organizations as varied as the Red Cross, the U.N., USAID and other civilian aid agencies, militaries, smaller NGOs, etc. responding to major natural disasters around the world, it really warrants a discussion on how these organizations manage to work together — or not,” he said. “Natural disasters represent some of the world’s most urgent, unpredictable humanitarian crises, and organizations need to understand how the other actors in the field operate if they want to be successful.”

Beckham added that that ALLIES exists to facilitate these discussions.

“Is it appropriate for militaries to be involved in natural disasters in the first place?” he asked. “Dialogues on topics like [this] are why ALLIES was founded.”

According to Beckham and Sax, this is the only time ALLIES has hosted a major event on this topic, but the group intends to host a similar conference each fall semester in the future. Additional ALLIES chapters from universities across the country were also invited to participate.

“[Seeing] 30 other ALLIES members come from our chapters at the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Wellesley College [to] attend the event has been a huge plus for us,” Beckham said.

The final stage of the conference involved a diplomatic crisis scenario during which participants acted out a real-time disaster response simulation, the specifics of which were not revealed beforehand, according to Beckham.

“The diplomatic crisis scenario, crafted by [retired Lt. Col.] Mark Stanovich, was staged in 2018 and dealt with a devastating typhoon that hit Vietnam and resulting geopolitical China-U.S. relations,” ALLIES Conference Co-Director Jackie Faselt told the Daily in an email. “The Military Fellows from Fletcher, who have begun to attend weekly ALLIES meetings, played a helpful role in facilitating the scenario.”

Faselt, a sophomore, added that future conferences should be even more successful as word spreads and a larger, more varied portion of the student population begins to attend.

“I would love to see more students who don’t usually come to ALLIES events in attendance,” she said. “Although the [International Relations]-security crowd seems to populate many of ALLIES’ events, topics covered this weekend were applicable to many different fields of studies including computer science, environmental science and public health.”