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Published: April 4, 2014

Humanitarian negotiations with armed groups

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There are a combination of factors peculiar to humanitarian negotiations with armed non-state actors (ANSAs). Talks often take place in extreme, high-stake environments with little common negotiating culture between parties. In addition, staff need to negotiate in practice what is not negotiable in principle under both organisational and legal frameworks, which are far-removed from reality on the ground (a recent HPG Policy brief described how ‘senior managers are often unaware of how ground-level staff obtain access’).  Aid workers are often negotiating from a position of relative weakness – little leverage and few alternative negotiating tables present themselves, and there is a strong possibility of second-best options being the only achievement. Are organisations and their staff members ready and equipped with the necessary tools for these types of complex negotiations?


Organisational Policy on Negotiation

With variable factors such as personality, expertise and contexts seen as key to agreements being struck, senior staff can feel ill-equipped to intervene in negotations and the ad hoc processes through which they take place on the ground. Can we always assume that staff in the field ‘know what they are doing’ when it comes to negotiating with insurgents, armed groups and other actors? According to the HPG Policy Brief on Humanitarian Negotiations with Armed Non-state Actors, ‘the very few agencies that have developed a coherent strategy for engagement with armed groups and have invested in the requisite capacity to implement it, have had greater and more sustained access’. A strong, supportive organisational policy on negotiation with armed groups, coupled with staff who are well-briefed on the overarching principles of successful negotiations (in addition to their own expert contextual knowledge) can result in more secure access and aid delivery.


Field-level negotiations

When negotiating, staff need clearly defined, pre-determined objectives. A comprehensive understanding of the actors involved, as well as a solid knowledge of an organisation’s mandate and mission are vital. Sources of potential leverage and the impact of translation can be systematically considered prior to any negotiation. A grounding in concepts such as the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA), reservation prices and target prices can also empower staff, resulting in a more consistent and principled negotiation.

Given that humanitarian negotiations are an ongoing process, relationships, credibility and consistency are key, yet often difficult to engender given the high levels of staff turnover in complex environments. Organisations which consciously and methodically ‘hand over’ the negotiatior role from one member of staff to another could avoid losing-hard won gains as a result of staff change.


Humanitarian Policy Group Policy Brief on Humanitarian negotiations with armed non-state actors: key lessons from Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia

The excellent HPG Policy Brief released in March 2014 summarises lessons learned from a two year research project on humanitarian negotiations with armed non-state actors in Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia. The brief states that when negotiating, the need for comprehensive analysis and understanding of armed groups and a clear organisational strategy and dedicated resources on negotiation are key. It was also found that engagement of armed actors must happen at multiple levels, and that greater transparency about the risks and compromises of engagement is needed. To read the report, please follow this link to the HPG website.



Background reading

Study of the Impact of Donor Counter-Terrorism Measures on Principled Humanitarian Action, UNOCHA & NRC, July 2013, https://www.nrc.no/arch/_img/9682778.pdf

Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience, October 2011,http://www.msf-crash.org/livres/en/humanitarian-negotiations-revealed

Guidelines on Humanitarian Negotiations with Armed Groups, UN OCHA, January 2006, http://www.unicef.org/emerg/files/guidelines_negotiations_armed_groups.pdf

Afghanistan: a case study – strengthening principled humanitarian response capacities, HPG, January 2012, http://www.odi.org.uk/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/7615.pdf


Organisational Policy on Negotiation

Humanitarian negotiations with armed non-state actors: key lessons from Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia, HPG, March 2014, http://www.odi.org.uk/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/8847.pdf


Field-level negotiations

Notes from the Humanitarian Negotiators Training Course 12, Fordham University and Barcelona Peace Institute, Barcelona, Spain, 9th– 15th March 2014.

Humanitarian Negotiation: a handbook for securing access, assistance and protection for civilians in armed conflict, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, October 2004, http://www.hdcentre.org/uploads/tx_news/188HumanitarianNegotiation.pdf


Humanitarian negotiations with armed non-state actors: key lessons from Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia

Humanitarian negotiations with armed non-state actors: key lessons from Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia, HPG, March 2014, http://www.odi.org.uk/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/8847.pdf

Talking to the other side: Humanitarian negotiations with Al-Shabaab in Somalia, HPG Working Paper, December 2013, http://www.odi.org.uk/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/8744.pdf

Talking to the other side: Humanitarian engagement with the Taliban in Afghanistan, HPG Working Paper, December 2012, http://www.odi.org.uk/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/7968.pdf

Talking to the other side: Humanitarian engagement with armed non-state actors in Darfur, Sudan, 2003-2012, HPG Working Paper, August 2013, http://www.odi.org.uk/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/8590.pdf


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