Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed

Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience

From international NGOs to UN agencies, from donors to observers of humanitarianism, opinion is unanimous: in a context of the alleged ‘clash of civilisations’, our ‘humanitarian space’ is shrinking. Put another way, the freedom of action and of speech of humanitarians is being eroded due to the radicalisation of conflicts and the reaffirmation of state sovereignty over aid actors and policies.

The purpose of this book is to challenge this assumption through an analysis of the events that have marked MSF’s history since 2003 (when MSF published its first general work on humanitarian action and its relationships with governments). It addresses the evolution of humanitarian goals, the resistance to these goals and the political arrangements that overcame this resistance (or that failed to do so). The contributors seek to analyse the political transactions and balances of power and interests that allow aid activities to move forward, but that are usually masked by the lofty rhetoric of ‘humanitarian principles.’ They focus on one key question: what is an acceptable compromise for MSF?

This book seeks to puncture a number of the myths that have grown up over the forty years since MSF was founded and describes in detail how the ideals of humanitarian principles and ‘humanitarian space’ operating in conflict zones are in reality illusory. How, in fact, it is the grubby negotiations with varying parties, each of whom have their own vested interests, that may allow organisations such as MSF to operate in a given crisis situation — or not.

‘This is a very valuable book. It shows one of the world’s great humanitarian organisations thinking aloud about the difficult choices it faces as it struggles to save and protect human life. The tone of Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed is exceptional for its frank and public self-scrutiny. In this respect, it breaks new ground and reveals a truly reflective humanitarian movement that is not afraid to learn in public. This honesty, and the insights into humanitarian history it offers, will make the book an important reference text in humanitarian studies, international relations and organisational theory. And, of course, it will fascinate those who continue to be intrigued by the particular aura and mystique of MSF.’ — Dr Hugo Slim, Oxford Institute of Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, University of Oxford

‘These stories and reflections illustrate the tragic humanitarian paradox: to act morally, one can’t always be principled. Neutrality and impartiality disappear into the pantheon of defunct ideals, as MSF defends a robust opportunism in the best sense of the word: reality-based situational ethics.’ — Dirk Salomons, director of the Program for Humanitarian Affairs at the School of International Public Affairs, Columbia University

‘This collection of essays represents a maturing of MSF’s view of the world. Theirs is now a nuanced pragmatic approach which keeps its eye firmly on the goal of alleviating suffering but understands the need to compromise and invent, choosing the best possible path to reach the goal.’ — Dr Peter Walker, Director, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University

‘A highly readable and challenging appraisal of what it means to be a humanitarian actor in today’s rebalancing world. With a refreshing honesty, it explores the thin line that humanitarian agencies tread between saving lives and supporting oppressors. This brave and informative book reconfirms MSF as an organisation that thinks as well as acts.’ — Mark Duffield, Professor of Development Politics and Director, Global Insecurities Centre, University of Bristol

‘The book highlights the shifting dilemmas faced by aid workers. It brings out the perennial dangers of silence and stresses the continuing need to highlight the hidden victims of ‘just wars’. It also exemplifies MSF’s traditions of self-criticism and internal disagreement, traditions that are now more valuable than ever.’ — David Keen, Professor of Conflict Studies, London School of Economics and Political Science

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