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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Briefing Papers

New | Interactive Briefing

April 2016

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... MORE

Understanding Humanitarian Negotiation: Five Analytical Approaches

November 2015

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... MORE

The ICRC delivered water and food to Nahr al-Bared on Saturday, but access to thousands in need remains limited. Hugh Macleod/IRIN

Securing Access: Maintaining Presence & Proximity in Insecure Settings

March 2016

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This podcast is produced in partnership with Humanitarian Outcomes.

Recurring violence against civilians and humanitarian aid workers affects both the quantity and quality of protection and assistance reaching the most vulnerable populations. It also requires a reassessment of how humanitarian professionals plan and strategically implement aid delivery in insecure environments. Global data indicate that there is a relatively small pool of international aid agencies that consistently work in the most dangerous countries, and not enough to meet... MORE

Perspectives on Access: Engaging with Non-State Armed Groups

October 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 groups. Yet in many of today’s operating environments, reliable humanitarian access is increasingly difficult to create and maintain due to the complex legal and political tensions. Humanitarian organizations working in these spaces must... MORE

Practitioner Profile | Colombia in Transition with Joanna Radziukiewicz

October 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 FARC. With this optimism about peace, however, comes recognition of the country’s manifold humanitarian challenges. Over 6 million Colombians have been internally displaced, for instance, the second largest population of IDPs in the world. As such, the humanitarian consequences of the conflict are likely to persist well into a post-conflict phase.

In this episode, ATHA speaks with Joanna Radziukiewicz, Country... MORE

Colombia, checkpoint near Chuapal, San José del Guaviare. Security concerns must be balanced by humanitarian considerations in all situations. This means giving ambulances and other medical vehicles priority at checkpoints. © ICRC / C. von Toggenburg / V-P-CO-E-01140

Humanitarian Negotiation in Practice

April 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-negotiable. On the other hand, a reality of humanitarian field operations is that negotiations are a crucial and perpetual component of gaining and maintaining access to affected populations, protecting the security of staff, and cooperating with local actors. As a result, humanitarian actors find themselves... MORE

NGOs’ Rights and Responsibilities for Humanitarian Access (Humanitarian Assistance Webcast 4)

May 2014

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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 disturbance. While international law provides important bases for humanitarian NGOs to obtain access to populations in need, it also imposes clear responsibilities on humanitarian organizations in terms of the maintenance of a neutral, independent and impartial approach to such situations. States remain primarily responsible for the provision of emergency assistance to their populations. However, in countries such as Pakistan or the Sudan governments are engaged in counter-... MORE


Preparatory Review of Literature on Humanitarian Negotiation

August 2015

Rob Grace
Blog Entries

Is There a Right to Humanitarian Assistance?

July 2015

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. The humanitarian crisis in Syria continues to worsen as the Assad government maintains a position of denying or placing severe restrictions on humanitarian access. These constraints are exacerbated by insecurity due to escalating fighting, the rise of the Islamic State, deliberate attacks against aid workers, and obstructions of humanitarian relief efforts. In the face of this devastation, do the people of Syria — or any conflict zone, for that matter — have a right to humanitarian assistance?

International... MORE

Sudan. An ICRC delegate with a member of the SLA (Sudan Liberation Army) © ICRC / HEGER, Boris / V-P-SD-E-01934

For Humanitarians, Negotiating the Non-negotiable

June 2015

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. They negotiate for access to vulnerable populations, the consent of governments and armed groups to operate and distribute relief, the protection of affected populations, the safety and security of their own personnel, the cooperation or mobilization of local actors and resources, and the promotion of respect for international law. However, a core tension exists around negotiations in the humanitarian sector: humanitarian actors need to promote respect for fundamental international norms while negotiating nearly every aspect of these norms’ implementation.

The Need for Compromise

To what extent... MORE

This undated file image, posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, shows Islamic State fighters marching in Raqqa, Syria. Raqqa is the de facto capital of the so-called Islamic caliphate declared a year ago by Islamic State in territories it controls in Iraq and Syria.

Does ISIL’s Brand of Extremism Render Negotiation Irrelevant?

August 2014

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. Hostage-taking has grown in popularity precisely because it affects a dramatic swing in leverage (i.e. suddenly, if the US refuses to engage with ISIL on its terms, it may forfeit an American life).  In this light, the... MORE

Thematic Reviews

Humanitarian Space

May 2014

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. When initiated in this neutral humanitarian space, such dialogue could possibly spill over into substantive political negotiations.1 Since then, the term has been primarily been associated with the former president of Medecins Sans Frontiers, Rony Brauman, who in the early 1990s spoke of a space in which humanitarian operators would be able to deliver assistance independent from the interference of politics.2 Oxfam supplemented this definition by contributing the perspective of the affected population: the humanitarian space is one in which the population is free to exercise their rights to receive assistance. Through this lens (also used by UNHCR), the humanitarian space is a protection space.... MORE

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