The Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance (CFE-DMHA)

An Assessment of Roles and Missions

by Stephanie Pezard, David E. Thaler, Beth Grill, Ariel Klein, Sean Robson


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Research Questions

  1. Which missions should CFE-DMHA emphasize in the near term?
  2. Should CFE-DMHA be regionally focused on the Asia-Pacific, or should it be globally focused?
  3. In light of the answers to the first two questions, which courses of action make the most sense for CFE-DMHA's mission and its geographic alignment?

In recognition of the important role that the U.S. military has to play in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, congressional legislation established the Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance (CFE-DMHA) in Honolulu in 1994 to provide and facilitate education, training, and research in civil-military operations. This report examines CFE-DMHA's history, activities, and roles to help determine how the missions assigned to it can best be performed to achieve the objectives of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in this domain. The report finds that a center focused on disaster management and humanitarian assistance (DMHA) fulfills important needs that will only grow in the future. After identifying some key concerns with the center's functioning, including a fundamental misalignment of mission and resources, the report concludes that CFE-DMHA should not be abolished, but that it should focus, for now, on a subset of activities and missions. While the Asia-Pacific represents a priority area for DMHA, because of the prevalence and severity of disasters in that region, there is also a need for additional training, engagement, research, and information related to DMHA civil-military coordination in other regions, which a globally oriented center could provide and that the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) should guide. Based on these conclusions, and after reviewing a number of courses of action, the report concludes that aligning CFE-DMHA with an existing globally oriented organization under OSD would best position the center to serve these purposes.

Key Findings

CFE-DMHA Fulfills Important Needs But Is at a Critical Time in Its Existence

  • The center has been struggling for years to fulfill a broad set of disaster-management missions and activities set by Congress and DoD.
  • Overall, the CFE-DMHA's effectiveness in providing and facilitating education, training, and research in civil-military operations in the international DMHA arena; making available high-quality DMHA in response to disasters; developing a repository of disaster risk indicators; and performing other tasks as assigned by the Secretary of Defense has been mixed.
  • Three key issues — internal administrative challenges, mandate not aligning with resources, and insufficient oversight and guidance — represent endemic problems for the center that have created difficulties in its dealings with external entities.
  • The current director is undertaking initiatives to address these issues, including narrowing the focus of the center, increasing the number of U.S. government staff, and seeking more-consistent funding.
  • CFE-DMHA meets important demands that will only grow in the future, and it should not be abolished.

Global Demand Warrants a CFE-DMHA with a Truly Global Outlook

  • There is a need for a continued high level of CFE-DMHA activity in the Asia-Pacific, but there are also requirements across DoD and in other regions that could be filled by a global DMHA entity.
  • CFE-DMHA cannot meet its global mandate in its current form or with existing levels of resources.


CFE-DMHA Should Focus on a Subset of Its Congressionally Mandated Missions in the Near Term

  • For now, CFE-DMHA should not equally emphasize all missions assigned to it in congressional legislation; at the same time, DoD should not seek to change CFE-DMHA–related statutes, because they allow flexibility to address future missions that the center is not resourced or positioned to pursue now.
  • The center should be configured to pursue congressionally mandated missions where there are important gaps, where CFE-DMHA would have a competitive advantage, and where CFE-DMHA's role is unique.

CFE-DMHA Should Be Aligned with an Existing Globally Oriented DoD Institution with Overlapping Activities

  • This option would enable CFE-DMHA to adopt and share the host organization's culture and outlook, administrative functions, processes, and established networks and could leverage the host's reputation to enhance its own. Given the demands of the Asia-Pacific region and the relationships and initiatives CFE-DMHA has forged there, CFE-DMHA should continue to pursue a high level of effort in that area.
  • If CFE-DMHA is to fulfill a global mandate, it will need to be recast and provided the necessary guidance, resources, and organizational structure.
  • A globally oriented CFE-DMHA should be reconfigured to expand its education and training, strengthen its research and repository functions, and broaden its regional engagement capacity.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    The History of CFE-DMHA

  • Chapter Three

    A Review and Assessment of the Center's Activities

  • Chapter Four

    Missions, Geographic Focus, and Courses of Action

  • Chapter Five


This research was sponsored by the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/ Low-Intensity Conflict and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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