Interview with Cate Klepacki, Humanitarian Assistance Advisor

Interview with Cate Klepacki

The following interview is in Ms. Klepacki’s own words and is not representative of the opinions of USAID or other previous employers.

Could you please describe what “human security” means to you? How do you define it? How does it play into the work that you do?

The concept of human security enables a reframing of our approach to security by transferring the focus from traditional concepts of security of the state to more inclusive and intersectional concepts specific to the security of the individual. Human security gives primacy to individual protection and empowerment by placing the individual at the center. Focusing on the individual catalyzes the creation of an environment in which self-determination is valued and individuals are empowered to play a role in shaping their own future.

We generally frame security of the state as national security, or the defense of the nation state against military or political aggression. Human security promotes the evolution of this approach to mean security between states by elevating the importance of protecting the rights and freedoms of individuals within states. Placing the individual at the center compels traditional security actors to reconsider their concepts of security and to adopt a more holistic approach.

Military actors generally understand protection as providing for the physical safety and security of individuals. Humanitarian actors tend to think of protection beyond physical security to include efforts intended to ensure the rights of all individuals enshrined in international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law as key components of humanitarian protection. When working with military and humanitarian actors, guaranteeing a collective understanding of these different perspectives allows for the accomplishment of shared goals.

Could you talk about your work as a humanitarian assistance advisor? What types of interactions/programs/groups are you advising?

One of the most challenging – and rewarding – aspects of my role as a humanitarian assistance advisor is the need to understand simultaneously the motivations, goals, and underlying principles of both humanitarian and military actors in various environments. My team coordinates with the humanitarian community to guarantee the best use of military assets when the military provides a unique capacity to augment the humanitarian response. Employed as an option of last resort, my team also assists the military in defining its role within the greater humanitarian relief community. In a sudden onset natural disaster, the military may have a role to play through their robust logistics capability should humanitarian actors be unable to move needed commodities independently. In a complex emergency where U.S. military forces may be present, my team may help facilitate and ensure separation of operations between the military and the humanitarian community or advise the military on potential conflict-related impacts on displaced populations. Given the inherent differences between military and humanitarian actors, humanitarian assistance advisors can play a vital role as a liaison that contributes to our collective success.

How does the attempt to determine which members of a refugee camp are civilians and which are not impact the work (if at all) of the humanitarian aid actors and/or the military working in that space? Is there a danger of profiling or discrimination present? If so, how could that be minimized or is it inevitable to some degree?

The humanitarian community conducts its relief operations in accordance with the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and operational independence. With that in mind, humanitarian actors do not make a distinction between individuals in a displaced persons camp as they are all viewed as civilians. Certainly, humanitarians face challenges in situations where security threats may be present, but humanitarians will make every effort to operate within the boundaries of the humanitarian principles.

Maintaining the humanitarian and civilian character of displaced persons camps is of the utmost importance. Military actors are strongly advised against entering displaced persons camps and encouraged to respect the civilian nature of the humanitarian space. The responsibility to secure displaced persons camps rests with the local government authorities in charge of the camps, including removing from the camps any individuals who do not belong within a civilian population.

The International Committee of the Red Cross recommends that governments allow humanitarian actors to monitor screening procedures to ensure security actors balance security and humanitarian concerns. To the maximum extent possible, humanitarian actors should be present to address any protection concerns with the screening process. This is especially important in situations where displaced persons may be perceived to have an affiliation with a specific group or be stigmatized for various reasons. Humanitarian actors can also provide necessary guidance to confirm that screening processes are sensitive to the ways in which women, girls, boys, and men experience conflict differently. Although governments remain ultimately responsible for the treatment of individuals under their authority, humanitarians can help guarantee that all persons are treated with dignity and respect.

How might you respond to people who feel civil military relations are likely always fraught with challenges and that military bodies are probably hesitant/unlikely to adopt any sort of humanitarian goals or mindset?

Complex emergencies and natural disasters are certain to present an array of challenges and obstacles that may seem insurmountable. The key to success is building and maintaining strong relationships. Just as humanitarians might be skeptical about the military, the military can harbor the same skepticism toward humanitarian actors. Overcoming misconceptions and creating opportunities for each side to better understand the other can make a significant positive impact. In my work, I’ve seen military actors defend the primacy of humanitarian response and turn to the humanitarian community for guidance on how to address complex problem sets. I’ve also heard humanitarian actors express their appreciation for the military’s role in creating a security situation that permits humanitarian access to affected populations and request military logistics assistance when humanitarian capacities were overwhelmed.

The protracted nature of complex emergencies and the increased intensity with which sudden onset disasters occur underscores the importance of fostering an environment in which humanitarian and military actors work together to respond to those in need. Although we may not always see a challenge from the same perspective, our collective success is more achievable when we view each other as partners rather than adversaries.


Cate is a Humanitarian Assistance Advisor with USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) working primarily with military actors in both sudden onset and complex emergency situations. Prior to joining OFDA, she served as a Refugee Officer interviewing refugees and asylum seekers to determine eligibility for protection under US law. Cate also worked briefly with the Danish Refugee Council in Jordan on improving livelihood opportunities for Syrian refugees and vulnerable Jordanians, as a researcher with the World Bank on an urban migration policy project, and with UNICEF Libya drafting a report on mixed migration of women and children in Libya. Cate is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University where she focused on Humanitarian Assistance, Migration, and Forced Displacement, and she earned a certificate in Human Security. She previously served in the United States Air Force for nearly 13 years.

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