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

I.d. Assessing Interlocutors

Policy literature on humanitarian negotiations emphasizes the importance of understanding the personalities of individual interlocutors,[33] the cultural context at hand,[34] and the organizational dynamics of the entity with whom negotiations are being pursued.[35] However, all three of these aspects — personality, culture, and organizational dynamics — can be difficult to assess.

First, negotiators often must operate in a rapidly evolving on-the-ground environment. Even if a negotiator makes a personal connection with an interlocutor, control of the relevant territory can quickly change hands, meaning that the negotiator will have to begin negotiation efforts anew with a different individual. Conversely, forging a personal connection that is too close to an interlocutor can also be problematic, as occurred with UNHCR in Bosnia, where:

(…) humanitarian personnel on the ground often misjudged their local interlocutors, underestimating their deceptiveness and making excuses for their obstructionism. They often devoted considerable time and energy to building up relationships with local authorities based on trust. In the process, friendships were established, with varying degrees of intimacy. In many situations, staff became reluctant to challenge these authorities and to be seen as being ‘confrontational.’

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Second, regarding the development of cultural expertise and an understanding of the organizational dynamics of a particular governmental or non-state entity, humanitarian organizations have tended to devote insufficient resources and time to this area, despite the fact that such assessments can be crucial to the success of negotiation efforts, and hence, to the overall success of a humanitarian operation. As one author states, “Culture is a crucial factor in negotiation. UN staff are often not equipped to understand the historical and cultural context that explains the behaviour of their interlocutors. Unnecessary offence may be given by arrogant personal behaviour or institutional posturing.”[36]

Third, organizational dynamics can be inherently difficult to discern, especially when negotiators are engaging with a decentralized armed group beset by its own internal power struggles. In such instances, it might not be clear who holds actual authority and with whom within a particular organization negotiators should aim to engage.[37] A related issue is that, in a complex security environment, humanitarian professionals might not be able to discern which group controls the territory, and therefore, would struggle to figure out with which entity the humanitarian organization should negotiate.[38]

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