Tackling landmines globally

Smarter thinking about where to focus demining efforts can transform lives

By Elias Papaioannou and Ben Laurance 17 May 2019


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The lives of millions of people in scores of countries are blighted by landmines. These silent, deadly, indiscriminate weapons lie in wait for the unwary, threatening to maim or kill – long after conflict is over.

In addition, the fear of landmines has a crippling effect on communities. To stray onto a patch of land where explosive devices may lurk would be foolhardy: it may in fact be mine-free, but without complete certainty that it is safe, the area will remain out of bounds and its productive potential unexploited.

In April 2019, the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development hosted a conference at London Business School: Landmine Contamination and Clearance – Policy and the Way Forward. It drew together a range of speakers from the the United Nations Mine Action Service, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, leading NGOs involved in humanitarian demining, and academic institutions.

This event follows research by London Business School Academics, Elias Papaioannou and Giorgio Chiovelli, and Brown’s Stelios Michalopoulos assessing the economic impact of landmine clearance on spatial development.

A vast range of issues was discussed: the changing nature of the threat as fewer industrially-produced mines are laid but the use of IEDs becomes more common in places such as Syria, Libya and Yemen; the shift of conflicts from rural areas into urban ones which means the remains of war-ravaged buildings may contain countless explosive devices hidden under layers of rubble; the drive to find new techniques; the potential – and problems – of exploiting the value of demining operations to rebuild trust between groups who were previously at war; the need to meet the ongoing needs of individuals who have suffered injuries that will have an impact on their lives for years after a conflict ends.

But one of the strongest themes to emerge from the conference was the imperative to find smarter, more insightful ways of tackling demining in order to achieve maximum benefit from the available effort and resources invested.

No matter how good the technology, a key question remains – where and how to deploy that technology in order to secure the earliest and greatest benefits for communities blighted by the deadly legacy of mines, IEDs and the explosive detritus of war.

Paul Heslop, an LBS alumnus who serves now as the chief of operations and planning for the UN Mine Action Service, was one of the speakers at the Wheeler Institute conference. He made the point forcibly: “What we are trying to figure out is what can we be doing to make sure we are doing the right thing and how we prioritise… we need to become impact and output driven.” For years, a key measure of demining activity has been the cost of clearing a given area.

But, said Heslop, “Cost per square metre is an irrelevance if that square metre isn’t going to be used properly. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a dollar or ten thousand dollars per square metre if there is no impact from clearing that ground or if that ground isn’t contaminated.” Also, donors and potential donors might be happier to provide funds if the demining sector could better explain the value that its activities yield and show the fruits of its achievements.

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He gave an example of road in Mozambique that linked the coast to the border with Malawi. While it was still contaminated, anyone wishing to make the journey had to make a huge detour. But clearing that road of mines cut the journey time from more than a day to just four hours. “That changes lives,” said Heslop. The lesson in terms of strategy was clear.

That was decades ago. And since then? “We have cleared hundreds of thousands of mines and explosive devices… but we are still learning lessons that we should probably have grasped a bit sooner,” said Heslop. “What is effective co-ordination, what is the real value-add of what we do? Agencies need to make sure the right people are in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.”

There is a need to show how demining can improve lives, he said. “What’s the impact of it? Stop focusing on thousands of mines or tens of millions of devices. It’s great, but it’s irrelevant. What are we doing, why are we doing it and what is the benefit from it?”

“$150,000 to clear one explosive device is expensive. But if that bridge has 1,000 vehicles an hour going across it for 20 hours day, what does that mean in terms of economic benefit – especially if the previous bridge was two hours’ drive down the road?”

In any case, long-established measures by which demining activity is measured are no longer enough: the goal of ridding the world of anti-personnel mines is laudable, but a more sophisticated approach is needed.

Heslop described the situation in Mosul in northern Iraq. The battle for control from 2016 to 2017 left the city devastated. There were explosive devices of every conceivable type lying within layer upon layer of rubble. “It’s three-dimensional demining,” said Heslop. “The amounts of explosive quantity involved is massive compared to the 50-200 grams you’ve got in a traditional anti-personnel mine. We have got to be innovative.

“The environment we are working in has now changed. NGOs have become a target; the UN has become a target. Insurgent groups are using different techniques. It’s not just about chasing those last few anti-personnel mines. It about figuring out how explosive hazards are stopping things from going on.”

Information management has become slicker, allowing agencies providing humanitarian and development aid to determine more easily where they might face a risk from mines.

“These sectors need that information,” said Olivier Cottray, head of the information management division of the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD): mine action is essentially an enabling function for humanitarian action. And information needs to flow both ways, helping those carrying out humanitarian work, but also enabling deminers to decide where they should concentrate their efforts. He pinpointed a key question: “How do we take into account various humanitarian and development priorities to optimise our risk-reduction work?”

Stefano Toscano, director of the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining expanded on this point: “It is absolutely key for mine action to be understood… as a contribution to broader agendas such as humanitarian action, such as peace and security, such as sustainable development.” Looking at the demining work being done in Gaza, “this is enabling the UN [Development Programme] to do its job because it creates a safe framework in which to operate.” And systems that were developed initially for demining can be used in broader monitoring and peace-keeping operations. “We need to add a new spin to the mine action narrative… that mine action is enabling many other types of agendas.”

Hector Guerra, director of the International Campaign of Ban Landmines, also pointed out that of global spending on mine action as a whole, victim assistance gets only about 20 percent of resources.. in Mozambique, there are survivors who suffered injuries years ago who are not receiving the ongoing support that they need and will need over many decades. “There are still these very basic needs that need to be addressed,” he said.

And mine action should be seen as part of the drive to secure human rights: “The presence of landmines is a threat to the most basic social, economic and cultural rights established in… international human rights law.

“Victim assistance and mine action in general are about human rights as well - the rule of law.”

The crucial importance of clearing mines from transport arteries in order to allow post-conflict economic recovery was a key theme highlighted by Paul Heslop. He gave the example of the iron bridge in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, 60 km to the west of Baghdad: “One device was stopping… this bridge being rebuilt by the UN Development Programme, but that device was under water in the span. No-one had any underwater mining experience,” he said. But a plan was devised, specialist divers were brought in, and within six weeks the threat had been removed – at a cost of $150,000.

“Now, $150,000 to clear one explosive device is quite expensive,” said Heslop. “But when you think that that bridge has 1,000 vehicles an hour going across it for 20 hours day, what does that mean in terms of economic benefit – especially if the previous [available] bridge was two hours’ drive down the road?

“The economic impact of what we have done is huge.”

The importance of clearing transport links was also highlighted by Giorgio Chiovelli, a research fellow of economics at LBS. Together with LBS’s Elias Papaioannou and Stelios Michalopoulos of Brown University, Chiovelli studied the impact of demining n Mozambique following its war of independence and a civil war that lasted from 1978 to 1992. It was one of the countries in the world most contaminated by mines. But more than two decades of demining meant that by 2015, it was free of landmines.

The key conclusion of the research was that a systematic approach to demining – concentrating initially on main transport corridors – would have allowed the Mozambique economy to recover far more quickly than was in fact the case: clearance had been insufficiently co-ordinated. Too often, demining was carried out in remote rural areas before turning to places where clearance could have had a greater benefit. Clearing densely-populated area and trade hubs is crucial in allowing an economy to recover: they should be a priority. Even areas that have never had a single mine see gains as access to markets is improved: benefits spill over into these areas.

And, as Chiovelli pointed out, this raises a further crucial issue. Until now, international treaties have concentrated mainly on the need to get rid of anti-personnel mines. But it is anti-tank mines and anti-vehicle mines that “are maiming economic potential,” he said. And it’s not just vehicles that are stopped from using mined transport routes. Ekaette Ikpe, Senior Lecturer at King’s College, London told the conference that in Somaliland, beasts of burden such as camels and donkeys can trigger anti-vehicle mines. And, of course, as agriculture becomes more mechanised, there is a danger that tractors will set off anti-vehicle mines.

The implication is clear. As Chiovelli pointed out, haphazard demining is wasteful of resources. To achieve maximum impact as quickly as possible, it should be co-ordinated and targeted – particularly to allow a country’s transport links to be opened up as quickly as possible. Determining the right priorities can bring faster economic recovery.

Demining is a good thing. Clever demining is even better.

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