Working Papers

Fragile Future: The human cost of conflict in Afghanistan

This context analysis examines the humanitarian, political, societal, and economic dimensions that make the protracted conflict in Afghanistan intractable and precarious for civilian populations. The report is based on field visits to numerous regions in Afghanistan in July 2018—which included interviews and consultations with a variety of actors, including political stakeholders, humanitarian agencies, and populations affected by conflict—as well as a review of recent and relevant literature. The purpose of this analysis is to (1) provide a current assessment of the conflict, drawing from field interviews and an in- depth assemblage of various reports and resources, (2) examine the interconnected and interdependent interests fueling the conflict, and (3) suggest that if these dynamics persist in the way they have for decades, recent elections and peace talks will represent yet another setback for Afghan communities and a peaceful future for the country.


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Humanitarian Access Obstruction in Somalia: Externally Imposed and Self-inflicted Dimensions

Executive Summary


Access obstruction in conflict settings has emerged as a critical operational and policy concern across the humanitarian sector, but there remains a dearth of analysis regarding the ways in which humanitarian organizations perpetuate self-inflicted access obstacles. Drawing on qualitative interviews conducted with local and international actors negotiating frontline humanitarian access in Somalia, this paper will examine the ways in which this context elucidates this phenomenon. Toward this end, this paper examines two dimensions of humanitarian access obstruction in this context. The first set of dynamics consists of externally imposed obstacles that stem from governmental actors, Al-Shabaab, access "gatekeepers" motivated by financial gain, and the insecure nature of the environment. The second set of dynamics consists of self-inflicted dimensions of access obstruction that emanate from decisions that international humanitarian organizations (IHOs) have made at the strategic or policy level. These issues include the physical "bunkerization" of IHOs, programmatic shortcomings, the discounting of local humanitarian actors' agency in this context, and the ways that IHOs exhibit programmatic partiality in response to donors' interests and counterterrorism legislation. Through examining these issues, this paper highlights fact that, although the discourse on humanitarian access obstruction tends to emphasize difficulties arising from externally imposed obstacles, it is also important to interrogate the value and methods of humanitarian programming itself.


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The Humanitarian Imperative: Compromises and Prospects in Protracted Conflicts

This paper originally appeared in a Special Issue of the Pathways to Peace and Security journal and is republished here with their permission. 


Executive Summary 

At present, the protracted nature of many conflicts raises profound dilemmas and issues for the humanitarian sector. Afghanistan, South Sudan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen in particular, resonate as long-term conflicts with long-term international presence, complicated by fragmentation and complex political influences, and without projected resolutions – all at the immense cost of the civilian population. Humanitarian response, built upon the fundamental, widely known and accepted international norms and rules, has significant and consequential operational limits and challenges to cope with. This article exposes some of the issues of international humanitarian deployments, access, the practical application of humanitarian principles, and the instrumentalization of aid. It also emphasizes the importance, even at the active conflict phase, of considering the long-term implications of aid by continuing to engage and invest in local community relationships and infrastructures to enable sustainable and impactful outcomes.

Toolkit: Responding to Violence against Humanitarian Action on the Policy Level

Launch of New Professional Toolkit on Responding to Violence against Humanitarian Action

Rationale and methods to share information, speak out, and challenge impunity in cases of violence against humanitarian action

The Humanitarian as Negotiator: Developing Capacity Across the Sector


This paper examines the dynamics at play in ongoing efforts to cultivate negotiation capacity among professionals working in the humanitarian sector. Based on extensive interviews conducted with humanitarian practitioners, this paper addresses three overarching issues. The first is humanitarian professionals' current understanding of humanitarian negotiation as a concept. On this issue, the paper examines the difficulties of defining humanitarian negotiation and the competing answers to the question of how to conceptually delineate humanitarian negotiation as an activity. The second is the types of negotiation capacity—cognitive, emotional, social, and cultural—that humanitarian practitioners deem to be relevant to their work. The third is the difficulties likely to be faced as capacity building efforts in this field continue to unfold. Overall, this paper aims to paint a portrait of the state of humanitarian negotiation capacity building, as well as what will be needed moving forward.

Tensions of Civil-Military Engagement in Complex Emergencies: The Case of Pakistan


With the international humanitarian community’s capacity to respond to large-scale and protracted emergencies stretched increasingly thin, international militaries are filling in some of the gaps. This growing involvement of militaries in humanitarian response poses unique opportunities, but also significant challenges to humanitarian practitioners. Using Pakistan as a case study, this paper explores the challenges inherent in civil-military engagement during complex humanitarian emergencies. It explores the tensions arising from military involvement in humanitarian response, in particular in the development and application of international guidelines for civil-military engagement in natural disasters and complex emergencies, the characterization of a response setting, and the application of the principle of ‘last resort’. It further explores the impact of military involvement on the humanitarian nature of a response, including with regard to humanitarians’ ability to gain and maintain access to populations in need of assistance while avoiding the militarization of humanitarian operations. Finally, it offers reflections for the humanitarian community on improving civil-military engagement in complex emergencies.

Gender Diversity Dynamics in Humanitarian Negotiations: The International Committee of the Red Cross as a Case Study on the Frontlines of Armed Conflicts


Negotiations for access are crucial for the success of humanitarian operations. They also occur in contexts of armed conflict and violence that typically entrench gender identities. Building on the vast research showing that gender affects the conduct and outcome of negotiations, this paper explores gender dynamics in a humanitarian setting. After outlining its methodology and surveying the relevant literature, this paper sketches out the ways 21 practitioners at the International Committee of the Red Cross see gender dynamics affecting their work in the field. These interviews support previous findings on men and women’s diverging conceptions of gender’s impact and relevance, as well as on the cross-cultural consistency of gender dynamics in war. In a context where, unlike in many corporate settings, women’s work as humanitarian actors is congruent with prescriptive gender stereotypes, this study shows that they can be perceived as more legitimate because they are thought of as selfless caregivers and potential mothers. This paper ultimately argues that, rather than studying the impact of gender in isolation, further research should explore how the intersectionality of different diversity dimensions—such as gender, race/ethnicity, age, and religion—affect humanitarian negotiations. In terms of policy implications, this study makes the case for actively fostering diversity, including in terms of gender, within negotiating teams to ensure they are more flexible in adapting to different scenarios and more creative in dealing with complex problems.

Protecting Humanitarian Action: Key Challenges and Lessons from the Field


Executive Summary

This paper presents an overview of key challenges and dilemmas faced in the protection of humanitarian action and aims to provide an initial overview of the legal, policy, and operational trends and issues identified by ATHA through its ongoing research and discussions with practitioners. On the basis of this analysis, this paper addresses three key areas. The first section highlights knowledge and questions regarding security incidents, trends, and causes of violence, including around causes and motives for attacks, and tensions between individual and collective responses. The next section then explores the role of the humanitarian principles, and the perceptions of humanitarian actors, in affecting their security in the field. Building on this, the final section examines the protection of humanitarian action under international law, and the impunity gap resulting from ineffective implementation or enforcement of the law. The purpose of this paper is to provide key background information and to serve as a starting point for dialogue and reflection on the protection of humanitarian action from attack. It is based on research and consultations with experts and humanitarian practitioners in the field.


Preliminary Report on the Role of Laws and Norms in Humanitarian Negotiations

This preliminary report has been produced as part of a research study being conducted by the Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA), based at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Responding to growing demands for more information, analysis, and policy reflection about humanitarian negotiation, the research study aims to produce a series of working papers that examine various thematic areas and professional dilemmas relevant to practitioners engaging in negotiations related to humanitarian assistance and protection. This working paper series will be based in part on extensive interviews conducted by ATHA with professionals with in depth humanitarian negotiation experience.

The particular focus of this preliminary report is the role that laws and norms play in humanitarian negotiations. The report is based on an initial set of 35 interviews that ATHA conducted with humanitarian professionals between May and August 2016. This document will sketch out ATHA’s preliminary findings and analysis. The report aims toward a working paper that will also incorporate findings from a set of 15 (or more) additional interviews, as well as feedback from relevant practitioners and scholars.


New | Interactive Briefing

Humanitarian Negotiation: Key Challenges and Lessons Learned in an Emerging Field

Executive Summary

Negotiations are crucial for the overall success of humanitarian operations, yet these endeavors are inherently challenging. Given both the importance of humanitarian negotiations and the gravity of the difficulties faced, what is the capacity of the humanitarian sector to carry forward lessons learned from past negotiations? This paper addresses this question. Specifically, this paper examines the field of humanitarian negotiation as a unique professional domain that has encountered common challenges across different geographic contexts. The overall issue at hand is that, although negotiators in different settings have encountered similar dilemmas and obstacles, the field of humanitarian negotiation has been slow to develop a body of research analyzing common issues faced, produce policy guidance that grapples in an in depth manner with the practical difficulties of humanitarian negotiations, and build professional networks both within individual organizations and across the sector so that negotiators can share best practices with one another.

Interactive Briefing | Humanitarians Under Attack: Tensions, Disparities, and Legal Gaps in Protection

Executive Summary 

Humanitarian professionals working in complex environments face increasing threats and attacks that endanger their lives, violate international humanitarian law, and jeopardize the consistent and effective delivery of emergency relief to populations in need. In light of these issues, this paper explores challenges and opportunities related to the predominant organizational approaches to the protection of aid workers in complex and insecure environments, and highlights often overlooked disparities in the risks faced by different groups of humanitarian professionals based on their status as national or international staff, gender, and organizational affiliation. It argues that insufficient attention has thus far been paid to the significance of these disparities and their implications for operational security and effectiveness. Furthermore, it highlights significant fragmentation and gaps in the protection of aid workers under international law and the culture of impunity prevailing for perpetrators of such attacks. It then examines the recent trends in humanitarian security management — namely, acceptance, protection, and deterrence. Finally, it offers reflections for the humanitarian community on improving the state of knowledge, practice and law with regard to the protection of humanitarian professionals.

In The Same Boat: Morocco’s Experience with Migrant Regularization

Objectives of This Paper

This collective policy paper summarizes the main themes of Morocco’s recent experience around migration policy. It draws upon many conversations with major stakeholders, group work, and site visits. We believe that thus far potential lessons from Morocco’s migration experience have generally been neglected in the current discourse around migration. This paper will draw out a number of ways in which this case is interesting and relevant for Europe. Ultimately we see potential lessons clustered around two main themes: the necessity of agile and fluid frameworks in formulating policy for the status of migrants, and the prerequisite (in formulating this policy) to grant space and voice to civil society. We hope that the ideas in this paper will challenge and inform policymakers as they seek to address this issue, which will continue to be present for years to come.

Interactive Briefing

Humanitarian Action and the Politics of Transition: The Context of Colombia

Executive Summary

What challenges are inherent for humanitarian practitioners when operating in a context of transition from protracted conflict to peace? This paper examines this question, focusing on Colombia as a case study. As a result of the decades long conflict in Colombia, as well as natural disasters, a host of serious humanitarian concerns persist in the country. The ongoing peace process between the government and the largest anti-government armed group in the country—the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC—while certainly a welcome development, yields an environment not only of protracted conflict but also of protracted transition. This paper discusses four particular issue areas relevant to operating in this context: grappling with the politics of denialism; the gap between the political negotiation agenda and the humanitarian issues facing the country; interactions between humanitarian actors and national transitional justice measures; and building linkages between humanitarian organizations and actors operating in other fields, such as development and peacebuilding.

Understanding Humanitarian Negotiation: Five Analytical Approaches

Executive Summary

This briefing note aims to support the humanitarian sector’s efforts to apply a deeper level of analytical and strategic thinking to humanitarian negotiation. Toward this end, it provides an overview of how the rich body of literature focused on negotiations in other contexts—political, commercial, and legal settings, for example—can inform our understanding of humanitarian negotiation. In particular, this briefing note focuses on five analytical approaches to negotiation: (1) distributive, or power-based, negotiation; (2) integrative, or interest-based, negotiation; (3) basic human needs-based negotiation; (4) the behavioral approach to negotiation; and (5) culture as a factor in negotiation. By examining humanitarian negotiation through the lens of these five approaches, this briefing note seeks to shed light on the potential factors that drive humanitarian negotiations and to promote further scholarly analysis and professional reflection in this field. 

Humanitarian Action in Complex Emergencies: Managing linkages with security agendas

Debates about humanitarian action in complex emergencies raise fundamental problems about the protection of human rights under international law. The number of humanitarian interventions has increased dramatically over the last decade and the debates about their legitimacy have become increasingly controversial. For humanitarian agencies, this debate raises particular dilemmas since it often creates an explicit tension between the principles of ‘neutrality’ and ‘humanity’. This paper explores whether there is a contradiction between these principles in international law and practice.

Preventing and Mitigating Humanitarian Emergencies through the Reduction of Disaster Risks and Vulnerabilities: The challenges for the humanitarian sector

The world is experiencing an upsurge in natural disasters. From 2000 to 2009, more than 2.2 billion people were affected by 4,484 natural disasters, and 840,000 people were killed.1 In 2010 alone, 263 million people were affected by disasters, 110 million more than in 2004, the year of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. By 2015, climate-related disasters alone are predicted to affect over 375 million people every year. Other disasters, such as earthquakes and conflicts, will affect many more

Rethinking the humanitarian response: Emerging approaches for engagement in urban crises

Concerns about urbanization and the multiple risks faced by urban populations are not new. Urban planners, development and human rights experts, and economic growth institutions, for example, have long dealt with the challenges but also the opportunities offered by the urban environment. However, it is only recently that the international humanitarian community has started to pay attention to engagement in urban areas 1. In part this is linked to the number of humanitarian emergencies that have occurred in densely populated urban areas over the past decade and which have required humanitarians to step up their engagement. Some of these include the Bam (Iran) earthquake in 2003; the conflict-related displacement of Iraqis to several capitals (and other cities and towns) in the Middle East including in Amman, Beirut, and Damascus in 2005–06; Kenya’s election-related violence of 2007-08; and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. There is also a growing realization of the link between rapid urbanization and urban risk to future disasters, which means that international humanitarian actors expect to be increasingly involved in humanitarian response in cities and towns of the developing world. While urbanization and the implications for humanitarian action have received increasing attention and recognition in academic, policymaking and operational debates, there remain significant gaps in knowledge, evidence-based policy, and practice.

Humanitarian Action and the Search for Peace: Moving Beyond Protection?

Violence is prevalent in the lives and work of humanitarians. We witness grave violations, indignities, and abuses inflicted upon communities and individuals. With limited supplies, insufficient funding, and overstretched staff, we are limited in our ability to provide a comprehensive solution to violence, focusing instead on offering immediate relief and protection while leaving the work of finding peace to others. In short, our work is purportedly in providing relief and protection from, but not ending, violence. Some, furthermore, argue that in conflict settings, “an agency may be able to address the underlying causes of conflict or to address the humanitarian consequences of it, but it is more challenging to do both at the same time”;1 these critics thus caution against humanitarianism trying to take up such a role. They note, additionally, that in many conflicts, advocacy is required to address the causes of a conflict; at the same time, advocacy, including even-handed advocacy, may cost access to affected populations.

Rethinking the Relationship of International NGOs and Local Partners

Humanitarian coordination seeks to improve the effectiveness of response in conflict and natural disaster by ensuring greater predictability, accountability and partnership. However, as crises become more complex - bringing more people together - coordination becomes more chaotic, communication among all actors is challenging and resources are limited. One key method to address this challenge is to focus on partnerships, not just among international actors, but, more importantly, between international and local partners. Emphasis on such partnerships can create opportunities to combine skills, expertise, and resources that more effectively deliver aid and strengthen local organizations’ leadership capacity.

Managing the Transition: Supporting Early Recovery and Linking Relief to Development

The concept of a chronological continuum that hitherto defined the sequence of the different types of international engagement (including relief, recovery, security, reconstruction, and development) in environments affected by crises has not been an effective tool in linking relief to development - because it assumed that crises are discrete events, or breaks in the normal development process - thus leaving the problems of the humanitarian-development gap unaddressed. Attempts to fill this gap have re-emerged with the concept of early recovery. The dynamics of crises situations are non-linear, as states or particular territories can move in and out of crisis, with no clear dividing line between crisis and post-crisis. Different forms of engagement may be utilized simultaneously when dealing with complex protracted crises.

Humanitarian Policy Making for Civil-Military Coordination (CIMIC)

Establishing a policy framework for working with armed forces in complex political emergencies. Interaction between civilian and military actors in complex political emergencies (CPE) continues to warrant close examination, as the scope and implications of these relationships are significantly impacting contemporary humanitarian operations. Acknowledging that such involvement between military and humanitarian bodies has been widely questioned and critiqued, this paper takes no position as to the ideal nature of the relationship; it adopts as its base for discussion situations in which the relationship is already in place. In recent years, humanitarian organizations have been criticized for the ad hoc style of interaction, as well as over the highly fragmented nature of this sector. There are many explanations for this lack of structure and coordination, a broad discussion of which is beyond the scope of this brief. However, this failure to collaborate in planning has implications for civil‐military coordination (CIMIC). Policies, methods and tools to develop collaboration of an appropriate nature and character between humanitarian bodies dealing with military partnerships are vital for the success of any civil‐military undertaking.

Humanitarian Coordination

A vital component of humanitarian action is the coordination among all actors involved in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Coordination within this field allows for the most efficient, cost effective, and successful operations possible. Groups seeking access to beneficiary populations often share the same objectives in regards to addressing human need and allaying suffering, but wide variance in such principle elements as organizational structure, technical and/or geographic expertise, mission, mandate, and political interest may hinder or prevent natural coordination on the field. This brief focuses on the dynamics of humanitarian coordination in the context of humanitarian assistance, and the main elements of coordination in the field.

Turning the Stranger into a Partner: The Role and Responsibilities of Civil Society in International Humanitarian Law Formulation and Application

This paper examines the relationship between the legal framework of international humanitarian law (IHL) and civil society actors operating in conflict situations. Attention is paid to assessing the manner in which the latter can play a role in strengthening the humanitarian dimension of the former. Brief introductory comments are warranted so as to situate the debate, in which non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in a conflict zone are adopted as the primary unit of analysis.

Designing Security: Methods for Improving Security Managing Practices and Security among Humanitarian Organizations

Humanitarian organizations operate in increasingly hostile environments. Although authoritative statistics are scarce, anecdotal evidence suggests that aid workers face life-threatening risks that are exacerbated by the growing number of humanitarian organizations operating in the field with varying mandates, without common professional security standards and with limited success with inter-agency security coordination. The ability of humanitarian organizations to fulfill their mandates in the future, will be depend in part on their individual success in improving internal security management practices and in finding ways to coordinate their efforts on building common security standards and security coordination across agencies. To meet this challenge, humanitarian organizations must implement improved security management methods and finds ways to coordinate their security operations and planning.

Human Rights in Humanitarian Action and Development Cooperation and the Implications of Rights-Based Approaches in the Field

This brief explores the implications of the rights-based approach, or approaches, (RBA) in development cooperation and humanitarian assistance. It reviews the history of the rights-based approach, and addresses the question of whether it has the potential to empower the recipients of aid, ensure accountability and improve their protection, or whether the risks inherent in the approach surpass the potential benefits. The brief thus compares and contrasts the possible added value of a human rights based approach to development cooperation and to humanitarian assistance with the risks and challenges stemming from it. It also includes the examination of three cases – drought affected Ethiopia, Darfur, and the response to hurricane Katrina in the United States – as examples of the dangers and advantages involved with such an approach. This brief suggests that it is be necessary for an organization to ‘embrace the full RBA package’: on the contrary, a ‘cherry-picking’ attitude, adopting those aspects of RBA that make more sense in a specific context and for a specific purpose, may prove beneficial by ensuring modularity and context sensitivity. This brief is based on a review of the literature on rights based approaches, produced by scholars as well as aid organizations. The paper also draws on interviews conducted by the author with humanitarian, development and human rights practitioners and on the writer’s personal experience.

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