The Art of Humanitarian Negotiation: 5 Things You Need to Know

Publication Date: 
Monday, November 20, 2017

What is essential for humanitarian practitioners to know about the relevance of the art of negotiation to their work? This blog post answers this question, drawing from the findings of a study that I conducted as part of ATHA’s ongoing research on humanitarian negotiation. This research project entailed 53 interviews conducted with humanitarian professionals working in a wide array of contexts across the globe, including armed conflicts, natural disasters, health emergencies, and urban development settings. As this research has shown, humanitarian negotiation is a complex process yielding a multitude of vexing challenges and dilemmas. I highlight five key issues below.

1. Negotiation is a key aspect of humanitarian action.

In the words of one humanitarian practitioner interviewed for this research, negotiations “are essentially totally necessary, required for anything you want to do while responding to an emergency.” And yet, another interviewee notes, “We don’t probably realize that it is a negotiation most of the time.” These comments echo a long acknowledged truth about humanitarian action: negotiation is crucial but under-appreciated. Indeed, a handbook on humanitarian negotiation published over thirteen years ago articulates this same point, quoting one humanitarian practitioner as saying: “We do nothing but negotiate, but are not always aware of it.”

Yet this “negotiation cognizance gap” persists. The interviews revealed numerous instances of practitioners starting out in the humanitarian profession idealistically but realizing quite quickly upon entering the field environment that obstacles would emerge (e.g., recalcitrant interlocutors impeding access, internal bureaucratic constraints, or inter-organizational “turf wars”), that deferring to humanitarian principles alone would prove to be an insufficient remedy, and that a strategic approach that incorporates negotiation would be required. Through the interviews conducted, a picture emerged of practitioners who observe the enduring prevalence of this “negotiation cognizance gap” while they themselves perceive negotiation to be relevant to activities spanning every facet of humanitarian action, including: securing and maintaining access; implementing programs geared toward humanitarian relief and/or protection; engaging with other humanitarian organizations operating in the same field environment; negotiating, at the diplomatic level, the development of the law or the adoption of United Nations Security Council resolutions; addressing administrative facets of humanitarian work, such as human resource issues; and engaging with donors. Although some professionals working in the field might not yet realize it, negotiation is a key aspect of humanitarian action.

2. Humanitarian negotiation is multi-faceted.

One overarching reason that addressing the aforementioned “negotiation cognizance gap” is so important is that humanitarian negotiation is a complex, multi-faceted process. This complexity stems from interactions between three sets of dynamics: individual, organizational, and inter-organizational. First, the individual level of analysis draws attention to the interpersonal aspects of negotiation: the relationship that the counterparts forge with one another, as well as the ways in which their interests and perceptions of norms do or do not align. The second set encompasses organizational dynamics. This level of analysis brings into the picture the notion that the humanitarian negotiator him- or herself is not acting as a solitary individual, but rather, as an organizational representative. In some cases, a negotiator might have a great deal of latitude and autonomy; in other instances, there might be intensive organizational oversight. Either way, the negotiator must manage the relationship between the individual and the organization. The third set consists of inter-organizational dynamics. This level of analysis recognizes that humanitarians negotiate in contexts where other humanitarian organizations operate in parallel, sometimes negotiating with the same counterparts about similar issues of access, relief delivery, and/or protection. The concessions that one organization makes can have ripple effects on other negotiations occurring in the same context. The interactions between these types of dynamics—individual, organizational, and inter-organizational—make humanitarian negotiation incredibly complex.

3. Effective negotiation requires a wide array of skills.

Given the multi-faceted nature of negotiation, it should not be surprising that successful negotiation requires a wide array of skills and competencies. Negotiation specialist Michael Benoliel has conceptualized negotiation capacity in terms of four types of “negotiation capital”: cognitive, emotional, social, and cultural. Although Benoliel’s framework draws from negotiations in other types of settings—namely, business negotiations—his insights are relevant to humanitarians as well. Cognitive capital refers to the requisite analytical skills, including the ability to analyze the relevant interests at hand, understand the substance of the negotiation, and comprehend the context. As one interviewee stated bluntly about the importance of this element of preparation before a negotiation, “You have to do your homework, basically. You cannot go there and have only a basic understanding of a few elements. That means you’re going to fail.” Emotional capital refers to the negotiator’s overall emotional intelligence, including the ability read the interlocutor’s emotions, “regulate” his or her own emotions, and strategically employ positive or negative emotions during negotiation processes. Social capital entails competency in terms of relationship and trust building, an especially important aspect, given the fact that, as one interviewee said of humanitarian negotiation, “trust is one of the main elements that determines whether or not it’s successful.” Cultural capital requires the negotiator to cultivate an understanding of the rules of decorum relevant in the context, as well as the norms that shape the counterpart’s worldview. Mastery of this panoply of skills and competencies—and organizational support directed toward assisting professionals in doing so—is key to successful humanitarian negotiation outcomes.

4. Guidance is available.

The humanitarian sector is currently in an early stage of a process geared toward conceptually embracing the importance of negotiation to humanitarian action and directing sufficient resources toward negotiation capacity building. Nevertheless, resources are available to professionals with an interest in learning from past humanitarian negotiation triumphs and missteps. One can find handbooks (for example, those produced by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs); collections of case studies (such as the Médecins Sans Frontières book, Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed and various publications by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees); reflections on, and analyses of, humanitarian negotiation produced by researchers and practitioners (see publications from the Secure Access in Volatile Environments program, the Institute of International and Strategic Relations, and Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection, as well as the “Humanitarian Negotiations Information Portal” hosted by Conflict Dynamics International); as well as trainings and workshops, including those that ATHA convenes in partnership with the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation. In the past, humanitarian negotiators might have had to endure in solitude. Now, the humanitarian sector has begun to embrace the importance of building an evidence base of past negotiations and allowing space for professionals to exchange views on experiences, methods, and tools.

5. Cultivating negotiation capacity is a lifelong process.

As one interviewee commented about the long-term nature of the negotiation learning curve, “You can’t just study a book on negotiation or read a Harvard study on negotiation and then immediately begin to apply that in a complex environment.” Rather, developing negotiation capacity entails interplay between acquiring firsthand field experience and learning about tools and concepts to organize one’s thinking. There is, of course, no magic recipe that guarantees success. Instead, the learning process is often non-linear. Each negotiator must move through an individualized process of making sense of past experiences in order to decipher what lessons from previous negotiations can and should be carried forward. The challenges can be great. As another interviewee stated, “You have to understand that failure is always an option and that you have to learn to work around it. You have to understand it and see how to move around it and look to the next level, the next round of negotiations.” The pathway forward requires an individual professional commitment to a lifelong process of developing negotiation capacity, organizational commitments from humanitarian agencies to support and facilitate this learning process, and a sector-wide acknowledgement of the importance of embracing negotiation as a central aspect of humanitarian action.

Returning to Michael Benoliel’s assessment of cultivating negotiating capacity, he asserts, “Possessing cognitive, emotional, social and cultural capitals are necessary, but they are not sufficient to ensure success.” Also required, he writes, is the development of a “negotiation ecosystem,” meaning “a set of organizational norms, processes and structures that are designed to support negotiators in the negotiation task.” Although the path toward such an “ecosystem” is long, the humanitarian sector appears to be taking the initial steps in that direction.

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