Rethinking the future of humanitarian negotiation

Approaching the Israeli Defence Forces for a right of way, Tulkarem. (Carina APPEL / ICRC)

Today, with the world facing a multitude of complex crises, the number of people in need of humanitarian support is higher than ever before, forcing humanitarians to rethink how to reach those who need them most.

Not only is it becoming more difficult to respond to these crises, but humanitarians also face a range of challenges that stand between them and their work. The difficulty of negotiating access to people in need, be it with governments, communities, armed groups or other conflict parties, can be a barrier to lifesaving assistance, while the risk of politicisation and the threat of disinformation threaten to impede their response.

How can the sector come together to meet these challenges? This question is the focus of the 2022 World Summit on Frontline Humanitarian Negotiation opening in Geneva today. Organised by the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN), the three-day hybrid event brings together humanitarian actors from across the sector along with academics, policy makers and government representatives to discuss the biggest challenges facing humanitarians today and in the future, in the hope of finding solutions.

The summit’s agenda is shaped by the contributions of hundreds of frontline humanitarian professionals from around the world – the CCHN Community of Practice – who have shared the challenges and dilemmas they face in their everyday work in the run up to the event. Ahead of the opening day on Tuesday, we sat down with director of the CCHN Joëlle Germanier to hear more about the event.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Geneva Solutions: What is frontline humanitarian negotiation?

Joëlle Germanier: We mean all types of negotiation that are done by humanitarian teams in the field in order to get access to the people in need. This covers negotiating protection outcomes, being able to deliver food and medical services, and other essential functions such as visiting prisons. This negotiation takes place with governments, with different armed groups and with communities themselves, so that humanitarians are able to do their jobs and deliver the assistance and protection that is needed. The negotiators could be many different people – from protection leads to heads of delegations – but our approach when we say ‘frontline’ is focusing on the people in the field, often national staff from the country in question who are leading those negotiations.

GS: What is the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) and how did it come about?

JG: The entire initiative came to life six years ago after the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), one of the biggest humanitarian organisations in the world, began to realise that no real work had been done to understand how to lead negotiations in the field and how to train their staff in this area. There was no systematic way of leading negotiations on the ground. They realised that kind of reflection would be even more valuable if they opened it up to other partners, which led to the creation of the CCHN in 2017 with five founding partners – the ICRC, Médecins Sans Frontières Switzerland (MSF), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD).

The collaborative nature of our work is quite unique because, often, the humanitarian sector likes to compete and not talk to each other. But the CCHN showcases the importance of collaboration. The core of the mission is to create a Community of Practice. It's a network of humanitarians in the field – professional negotiators that come together because they want to learn and share and they have a common purpose and a common passion, which is frontline negotiation.

GS: Why is collaboration so important in the humanitarian sector?

JG: From our research, we found that humanitarian negotiators as individuals feel quite isolated and not well equipped. They are usually just sent into a situation and told to fix it. And so we felt very strongly that they needed a network of support. When it comes to trying to overcome some of the big challenges we have in terms of access, the issue is that humanitarian organisations don’t collaborate with each other. You often have different organisations talking to exactly the same people on the same issue but they don’t talk to each other, they don’t share their strategy or have a joint plan. All too often what happens is humanitarians fall victim to the ‘divide and conquer’ strategies that are being played against them to make them weaker because of the lack of any joint strategy.

We strongly believe that collaboration would help us be stronger together in some of the most difficult situations as opposed to each of us trying to come up with our own strategy.

GS: The focus of this year’s event is what frontline humanitarian negotiation will look like in 20 years time. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing humanitarians today and in the future?

JG: I think we have come to the realisation as a humanitarian sector that a lot of the traditional models we have are not working, or at least do not fit everywhere anymore. So there is the whole challenge of how we can rethink what humanitarianism is about, what our role is and what are our values and purpose. It’s also about how we work with local actors and with civil society. We’re very used to working with each other as humanitarian actors, but we are seeing that the nature of who the first responders are when there is a crisis is evolving in many places. It's actually individuals – it's your neighbour, it's civil society mobilising itself, like we have seen in Ukraine. So we need to think how we can work with these movements of solidarity that do not qualify as traditionally humanitarian but are actually the ones providing humanitarian assistance.

Then, of course, there are the growing needs driven by hunger, natural disasters, climate change and other crises. We know those huge global challenges are there, and I think that will mean our traditional ways of negotiating will need to be adapted. For this, we need to have a space of reflection to see what’s going on, analyse it and come up with a new way of doing things, which is why the CCHN Community of Practice is key. It’s about recognising the complexity of what is going on in today's conflicts and all those huge, global interconnected challenges which may also mean that we need to have much more local responses that are grounded in local realities rather than institutional policy making.

GS: What do you hope will come from the summit?

JG: The value of the summit is that it's not only a conversation between humanitarian negotiators but people from across different sectors, which gives us a diversity of perspective. We’re hoping to reinforce the importance of this collaboration and give visibility to all the experiences and the wealth of knowledge shared in the Community of Practice. Aside from that, it will help us come up with a kind of roadmap about what we need to be ready for in 20 years time so that we can start preparing for it. I think it will give us an indication of what the priorities are, what matters for humanitarian actors and what we should actually be focusing on over the coming years.

The 2022 World Summit on Frontline Humanitarian Negotiation is taking place at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva and online from 1 - 3 November.