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

II. Carrying Forward Lessons Learned

What is the humanitarian sector’s capacity to carry forward lessons learned regarding the challenges mentioned in the previous section? The aforementioned confidential nature of negotiations has evidently served as an impediment to sharing experiences and lessons learned across the sector. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, in certain complex environments where sensitive negotiations occurred, frontline negotiators did not even inform superiors within their own organization about ongoing negotiation efforts.[39] The humanitarian sector has also been slow to appreciate the important role that negotiations play in the success of humanitarian operations,[40] and as one policy document mentions, “[n]o [c]ommon [n]egotiating [c]ulture” exists across the sector.[41] These factors are reflected in three gaps in the exiting body of literature on humanitarian negotiation, as the rest of this section discusses.

First, literature on past humanitarian negotiation experiences focuses primarily on context-specific case studies. To date, no analysis has been conducted of how negotiators in different contexts have approached cross cutting challenges, such as the issues examined in the previous section of this paper. This literature gap suggests a perception that negotiations are context-specific, and that experiences in, for example, Colombia, might not helpfully inform negotiations in another region, such as the Middle East or Africa. The assessment of the key challenges presented in this paper, though, suggests the opposite conclusion. Indeed, in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa — though some elements of negotiation efforts are, of course, specific to each individual context — negotiators face similar overarching challenges, and lessons learned in one region could apply elsewhere as well. 

Second, there is a dearth of analysis geared toward garnering a conceptual understanding of humanitarian negotiations. Despite the fact that there is a vast body of literature addressing the role that factors such as power, interests, relationships, basic human needs, and culture play in commercial, legal, and political negotiations,[42] no literature exists that applies these conceptual frameworks to the field of humanitarian negotiation. Indeed, a perception pervades that humanitarian negotiations are unique. For example, recall the aforementioned quote from an OCHA policy document, which states, “Humanitarian negotiations differ from many other types of negotiations because the parties to the negotiations have different core interests (…).”[43] This perception has led analysts of humanitarian negotiations to shy away from marrying the practice of humanitarian negotiation with the wealth of valuable literature that focuses on other negotiation contexts. As a result, existing literature offers little analysis of how humanitarian negotiations unfold and how past successes and failures can be explained.

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Third, a foundational body of policy literature has been produced that addresses the key challenges faced, but various questions remain about the practical realities of negotiation efforts. What role do humanitarian principles actually play — and what role can and should principles actually play — in negotiation efforts? When are tactics such as threatening to pull out of negotiations or resorting to public denunciation appropriate, and when might such tactics harm negotiation efforts? How can organizations strike a balance between, on the one hand, the need to keep negotiations confidential and to grant negotiators room to maneuver compromises, and on the other hand, to coordinate on negotiations with other organizations operating in the same context? How can negotiators develop quick and useful assessments of interlocutors in a rapidly evolving environment where information about entities that control territory is difficult to obtain? Professional engagement with humanitarian negotiators from different organizations and across different geographic contexts can build on the policy guidance previously generated to illuminate how practitioners have grappled with these questions in past negotiation efforts and fill an existing policy guidance gap.

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About the Author

Rob Grace is a Senior Associate at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. He would like to thank Claude Bruderlein and Julia Brooks for helpful comments and edits offered during the process of drafting this paper.

Rob Grace

Rob Grace