Understanding Humanitarian Access: Linking Theory and Practice

Publication Date: 
Sunday, April 30, 2017

Humanitarian access obstructions, which limit international humanitarian organizations’ abilities to provide assistance and protection to populations in the greatest need, endure as one of the most vexing policy issues faced by the humanitarian sector. Indeed, recent reports published by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) detail ongoing access challenges faced in humanitarian crises occurring in the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan; West and Central Africa; as well as the Asia and the Pacific region. Previous blogs, podcasts, and policy papers produced by the Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA) have examined approaches to grappling with access—and other—constraints within the framework of frontline humanitarian negotiation, including issues related to the challenges and dilemmas of negotiation, the role of laws and norms, gender dynamics, and approaches to engaging with non-state armed groups (NSAGs).

In that vein, this blog offers an overview of relevant social scientific research that can enhance our understanding the dynamics that drive humanitarian access obstructions. In particular, the blog presents three theoretical models for understanding humanitarian access environments, discusses outstanding questions that warrant further analytical inquiry, and offers comments about how this social scientific work could inform approaches to negotiating humanitarian access in the future. The overall aim is to push deeper into linking theoretical inquiry with efforts to grapple with field-based challenges and dilemmas.

The “Communicative Action” Model

In terms of theoretical underpinning, there are various analytical approaches for understanding the process of humanitarian negotiation, as ATHA has previously examined. One could place these approaches under the overarching umbrella concept of “communicative action,” a concept on which Risse (2000) focuses in his examination of international negotiations. Indeed, the “communicative action” model appears to undergird—albeit perhaps implicitly so—the humanitarian sector’s approach to cultivating professionals’ capacities in humanitarian access negotiations. This model emphasizes negotiation as a communicative process through which humanitarian practitioners seek to surmount access obstacles via engagement with a wide array of actors, including governments, military actors, and NSAGs. The concept places emphasis, in particular, on the transformative possibilities that can open up between counterparts through negotiation, and in particular, in ways that cannot be predicted by focusing only on underlying power dynamics, interests, or norms.

However, an important open question is: what are the limits of what negotiation can achieve? More specifically, if a negotiation fails, how can one determine whether a different approach would have led to success, or whether a negotiated outcome acceptable to both parties was impossible? This question is particularly significant given the importance of learning useful lessons from past negotiation practices. The two models below offer a starting point for answering this question, although, as the rest of this blog will show, analytical gaps remain, pointing to the need for further research and analysis.

The “Interpretist Typology” Model

Little comparative analysis of humanitarian access environments had been conducted before Labonte and Edgerton (2013) presented what they dubbed to be a “typology of humanitarian access denial.” Through an assessment of three cases—Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, and Sudan—Labonte and Edgerton employed an interpretist approach, based on the assumption, as they describe, that “actor behaviour can only be understood as being influenced in part by one’s environment, but also by one’s subjective perception of that environment.” In other words, when examining the behavior of entities that control territorial access during humanitarian emergencies, an observable link should be discernable between how these actors perceive their interests and the access denial actions that they pursue.

Labonte and Edgerton’s typology consists of three categories. The first type is “latent access denial,” in which a state perceives that humanitarian action conflicts with its national image. For example, the need to rely on outside assistance might impede a state’s ability to project power, authority, or stability. Consequently, states use bureaucratic constraints to control, and place conditions on, humanitarian access. The second type is “deterrent access denial,” in which humanitarian aims appear to contravene a state’s military or security objectives. In such instances, the state turns not only to bureaucratic impediments but also to measures that can lead to security threats for humanitarian actors—for example, intensifying military activities, refusing to grant a security guarantee to aid workers, or directly attacking humanitarians in the field. The third type, “proxy access denial,” entails states using humanitarian access as a bargaining chip in negotiations to pursue other aims. Regarding Syria, for example, many commenters have criticized the authorities for conditioning humanitarian access on progress in political negotiations.

This typology takes a valuable first theoretical step in this area, but at least two overarching open questions remain.

First, under what circumstances do the aforementioned factors lead to access restrictions? How can one understand when considerations of national image will prompt access denial and when they will not? In what ways do states perceive that humanitarian access serves security and military aims, and under what circumstances are states likely to view humanitarian and security or military aims as conflictual? What prompts states to use humanitarian access as a bargaining chip, or conversely, what factors inhibit states from doing this?

Second, how do these factors interact? For example, how might a state respond if were to perceive that humanitarian assistance might serve its security interests—for example, by providing necessary resources to civilian populations residing in territories it controls, therefore potentially reducing instability—but might impede its ability to project a strong national image?

The “Strategic Legitimacy” Model

Jo (2015) presents the “strategic legitimacy” model as an overall theoretical framework for understanding what drives compliance or non-compliance by NSAGs with norms of international humanitarian law (IHL). According to the model, IHL compliance will be higher for NSAGs that aim to convince key domestic and international actors that they are viable political entities. If the NSAG seeks to build political legitimacy at the domestic level, and if the group depends on foreign sponsorship from governments for which IHL compliance is important, one should expect the NSAG’s behavior to align more with IHL norms. Jo validates her theory through a comparative analysis focusing on several particular norms, one of which is granting access to detention centers to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Similar to Labonte and Edgerton’s typology, Jo’s model makes an important contribution to understanding humanitarian access but leaves open questions about what factors drive the model’s underlying dynamics and how these elements interact with one another. Under what circumstances should one expect that NSAGs would seek to cultivate political legitimacy in the eyes of the domestic population? What determines whether foreign sponsors of NSAGs will prioritize adherence to IHL norms over other factors, such as strategic or military objectives? How might an NSAG balance competing priorities in terms of domestic and international actors—for example, if an NSAG does not seek political legitimacy at the domestic level but relies on a foreign sponsor that values compliance with IHL? To what extent can one extend the applicability of this framework to governmental behavior? And finally: what variations might exist across different norms? Along these lines, Jo finds that foreign sponsorship has influenced NSAG behavior regarding the killing civilians and ICRC detention center access, but not for the use of child soldiers. What should one expect in terms of the model’s applicability to granting territorial access for humanitarian relief efforts?

Concluding Remarks

This blog has provided a brief overview of different theoretical approaches for understanding humanitarian access obstructions. Overall, although this area is a prominent and persistent humanitarian policy challenge, scarce social scientific attention has been paid to the topic. Further theoretical probing of the dynamics that drive actors to allow for, or to restrict, humanitarian access could therefore prove fruitful in terms of informing the practice of humanitarian access negotiations.

Additionally, two other bodies of theoretical literature could also be better incorporated into future analyses of humanitarian access negotiations. First, there is a growing body of literature—including Valentino, Huth and Croco (2006); Downes (2008); Morrow (2014); Benvenisti and Cohen (2014); Jo and Simmons (2016); and Stanton (2016)—that seeks to explain IHL compliance and non-compliance. Although this literature has, for the most part, not specifically examined humanitarian access in a systematic manner, one might draw valuable insights from this literature about the relevance of factors—such as the organizational capacities of parties to a conflict, warring parties’ strategic war aims, and the deterrent power of international legal sanctions—for their treatment of humanitarian access.

Second, the wide breadth of social scientific literature on civil wars might prove relevant as well. As one might discern from Kaufmann (1996) or Sambanis (2001), for example, that access environments may differ depending on the nature of the overriding grievance—in particular, whether the conflict is fundamentally ethnic or ideological in nature. Or perhaps the organizational structure of the government, and how governmental authority breaks down as a country descends into civil war, could lead to different humanitarian access obstruction patterns.

In conclusion, the overall takeaway from this blog’s cursory overview of relevant scholarly literature is that: 1) analytical gaps remain in this area, and 2) closing these gaps could help humanitarian actors better understand and navigate—on an individual practitioner basis, organizationally, and across the humanitarian sector—challenging access environments. This, in turn, could have significant practical benefits for humanitarian access in the field and the ability to access vulnerable populations in critical need of assistance and protection. 

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