Policy Project: Frontline Humanitarian Negotiation

Humanitarian practitioners regularly engage in negotiations with governments and armed actors, both in their efforts to gain access to locations where beneficiaries reside and to promote the protection of civilians affected by armed conflict. However, the humanitarian sector has only recently begun to recognize the significant role that negotiations play in humanitarian action.

A growing body of case study-based literature and policy publications produced in the past decade has begun to address the recurrent dilemmas faced by humanitarian negotiators in different contexts. As this literature suggests, during negotiations, humanitarians regularly struggle with tensions between humanitarian principles and interests, the competing needs for confidentiality and coordination between different organizations, and the challenges of adequately assessing interlocutors in a fluid environment where control of territory frequently shifts. Therefore, a need exists to build on past analyses to further support the humanitarian sector's abilities to learn lessons from past experiences.

The work of the Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA) in this thematic area aims to contribute to the humanitarian sector's efforts in this regard. Through undertaking extensive research and convening advanced practitioner workshops at the regional level for experienced humanitarian negotiators, ATHA is focused on bridging the gap between theory and practice in this area by analyzing practice, developing methodological frameworks for engaging in humanitarian negotiations strategically, and building a community of practice for humanitarian negotiators to engage in professional exchange about their practices.

Below are resources produced by ATHA, as well as by other programs of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

Advanced Practitioner Workshops

Through its work at the field level, the ATHA Program engages with representatives from international and local agencies, aiming to foster a space for informed dialogue among experts and practitioners on key challenges of humanitarian assistance and protection. ATHA is currently working on a multi-year initiative of research and practitioner engagement, developing a growing community of practice on humanitarian negotiation. The goals of the initiative are to foster the creation of an informal community of professional exchange on the dilemmas of humanitarian protection at the field level, with a focus on strategic methods and frameworks to capture and enhance negotiation practice in complex environments.

Workshops such as these provide tools and frameworks for participants to enhance their own negotiation capacity and to discover new methods for working in environments where traditional approaches to humanitarian operations, international humanitarian law, access, and proximity to vulnerable populations are being challenged.

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November 2016

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

Federica du Pasquier 

Executive Summary

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..MORE

April 2016

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

Rob Grace

Executive Summary

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... MORE

November 2015

Understanding Humanitarian Negotiation: Five Analytical Approaches

Rob Grace

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... MORE


Wednesday, February 1, 2017


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Michiel Hofman worked for MSF in field missions between 1993 and 1998 as Emergency Co-ordinator and Head of Mission for MSF in Liberia, DRC, Bosnia, Burundi, Sri Lanka, Brazil, South Sudan and Kosovo, returning to his former career as freelance journalist in between missionsMORE

Wednesday, January 25, 2017


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What role do humanitarian law and norms play in humanitarian negotiations? Practitioners have diverse array of views: some field workers perceive that the law holds a high level of practical utility in their negotiations, while others have found it to be irrelevant to their workMORE

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


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In many of today’s frontline humanitarian environments, access is increasingly difficult to obtain and maintain, and continued engagement with non-state armed actors is an integral aspect of ensuring assistance and protection activities and advocating for compliance with international legal standardsMORE

Wednesday, November 16, 2016


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Personal relationships and trust-building constitute critical dimensions of frontline humanitarian negotiations. In order to operate effectively, in many contexts, humanitarian organizations must first ensure that they are accepted by the parties to a conflict, and establish and maintain an ongoing relationship with counterpartsMORE

Wednesday, October 26, 2016


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Recent high-profile attacks on humanitarian professionals and operations in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, among others, call attention to the growing vulnerabilities of humanitarian staff and medical operations at the frontlinesMORE

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


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Amidst recurring violations of international humanitarian law (IHL), strengthening compliance with these international norms is indispensable to the protection of civilians in armed conflictMORE

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


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This podcast is produced in partnership with Humanitarian OutcomesMORE

Thursday, October 22, 2015


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Gaining and maintaining access and proximity to beneficiaries is crucial to humanitarian assistance. In order to ensure the safety and protection of civilians, particularly in non-international armed conflicts, the international legal and humanitarian communities have attempted to apply humanitarian rules developed for armed conflicts between states to internal conflicts with armed groupsMORE

Friday, October 2, 2015 


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Colombia is on the verge of transition, as negotiators near agreement on a peace deal to end the country’s decades-long armed conflict between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARCMORE

Thursday, June 25, 2015


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A core tension persists in the humanitarian sector surrounding the role that negotiation plays in humanitarian action. On the one hand, many feel that humanitarians have nothing to negotiate, that humanitarian action is rooted in humanitarian principles - humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence - which are non-negotiableMORE

Thursday, December 15, 2011 


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In recent years, humanitarian organizations have seen a rise in constraints on their access to vulnerable populations in times of conflict or internal disturbanceMORE


August 2015

Preparatory Review of Literature on Humanitarian Negotiation

Rob Grace

This preliminary literature review is based on an assessment of academic articles, books, news publications, and policy documents relevant to humanitarian negotiations... MORE


July 15, 2015

Is There a Right to Humanitarian Assistance?

Now in its fifth year, the war in Syria has produced what the UNHCR calls the “biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.” At least 220,000 Syrians have been killed, over half of the country’s population have been displaced, and over 4 million refugees have fled abroad, pushing global forced displacement to record levels, threatening to destabilize the region and fueling a migrant crisis on the Mediterranean Sea. MORE

June 24, 2015

For Humanitarians, Negotiating the Non-negotiable

Humanity, neutrality, impartiality, independence. The fundamental principles of humanitarian action are non-negotiable. Or are they? While promoting respect for international norms, humanitarian actors must engage in frequent, frontline negotiations to ensure the success of their operations. MORE

August 26, 2014  

Does ISIL's Brand of Extremism Render Negotiation Irrelevant?

In terms of size and sophistication, the US armed forces are generally considered to be without equal. This assessment includes ISIL, the militant group of Islamic extremists that now controls an area of Iraq and Syria roughly the size of the United Kingdom. Yet the gruesome beheading of American journalist James Foley last week is but the latest reminder that US military might, in the abstract, is no guarantor of safety for journalists and other US passport-holders in the region. MORE


May 2014 

Humanitarian Space

The term “humanitarian space” has been used for over twenty years. It appears that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was the first to use it in the 1980s to describe a space for dialogue on humanitarian issues of common concern to warring parties... MORE


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