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Getting where needed: overcoming aid access obstacles

Time (GMT +01) 14:00 16:00
Hero image description: Palestinian Red Crescent Society ambulance Image credit:ICRC 2011 Image license:ODI given rights

Dennis McNamara
– Senior Humanitarian Adviser, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue

Brian Tisdall – Head of Division, Multilateral Organisations, Policy and Humanitarian Action, International Committee of the Red Cross

Sara Pantuliano – Head, Humanitarian Policy Group

Marc DuBois – Executive Director, Médecins Sans Frontières UK

Getting where needed: overcoming aid access obstacles

14:00 - 16:00 (GMT+1), 29 April 2013, ODI

This panel event examined the practical challenges humanitarian organisations face in reaching those in need and the strategies adopted to overcome these challenges. It was chaired by Dennis McNamara, Senior Humanitarian Adviser at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, who opened the discussion by contending that there were more ‘humanitarian no-go areas’ today than has been the case for a long time. Panellists responded to questions from the chair and then from the floor and online viewers.

The opening theme was the way that access – and challenges to access – are understood. Brian Tisdall, Head of Division, Multilateral Organisations, Policy and Humanitarian Action of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), drew attention to the range of contexts, including Mali, Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan, in which access currently poses an extreme difficulty for many humanitarian organisations. He emphasised the ICRC’s view that access should be viewed as context-specific and that the process of gaining access to victims is a continuous challenge requiring day-in, day-out attention rather than a single exchange. Sara Pantuliano, Head of the ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG/ODI), emphasised that the challenges to humanitarian access are multiform and should not be reduced to actors intentionally blocking access. Often the issue is more related to insecurity than direct spoiling and in many crisis situations there are logistical and infrastructure problems, such as difficult terrain or inadequate roads, which prevent humanitarian organisations from reaching affected populations. She noted that in cases where there are bureaucratic restrictions on the movement of personnel or supplies, these may not be simply obstruction but part of way of conducting the business of governance, which should be factored into strategies for negotiating access. In addition, she emphasised factors endogenous to the humanitarian sector that exacerbate access difficulties, such as the size and fragmentation of the sector, an inability to deploy rapidly in crises, and the lack of familiarity with relevant frameworks of international humanitarian law (IHL). Marc DuBois, Executive Director of Médecins Sans Frontières UK (MSF), argued that challenges of access are not new but that these old challenges are confronting humanitarian organisations in a new way. Compared to twenty years ago, for example, the rise in political clout of the humanitarian sector – the integration of the protection agenda and the rise of this agenda within the United Nation Security Council – has meant that more governments now see humanitarians as a potential threat, as an extension of the human rights community and an actor that may use information against a host government. This broader geopolitical context must also be understood as affecting the question of access.

The panel also discussed the different ways that humanitarian organisations approach this question, focusing on the two organisations represented. Brian Tisdall indicated that ICRC endeavours to engage in long-term dialogue with all parties to a conflict, both governments and opposition groups, in order to build the relationships that make access possible. He stressed the importance of trust and acceptance, fostered over time through the adherence to the humanitarian principles of humanity, independence and neutrality, as part of this process. Marc DuBois highlighted similarities between the ICRC and MSF, particularly in terms of the importance of acceptance, closely linked with the need to show that humanitarian work is not a direct factor in a conflict and observance of the principle of impartiality. A realpolitik analysis is needed, he argued, to the extent that belligerent parties must believe that humanitarian work is useful to them – humanitarian programming should be perceived as relevant and beneficial by all. More divergent were the working methods of ICRC and MSF: while the former has the ability to leverage high-level diplomatic relations thanks to its formal role, the latter has a greater proclivity to use public channels and advocacy, as well as greater openness to the idea of acting without official permission.

The panel drew explored the nature and lessons of experiences in countries such as Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria. Sara Pantuliano described the efforts she led in the Nuba Mountains (South Kordofan) on behalf of the Office of the UN Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator in the late 1990s. She drew attention to two key factors in the successful opening up of the Nuba Mountains to aid work after thirteen years of isolation:

1.       The significant investment of resources, in terms of time, personnel, and financial support, in the process of gaining access; this was based on the then Humanitarian Coordinator’s acknowledgement that acceptance in this way required constant efforts over time.

2.       The importance of political support for humanitarian action in the region; the fallout from 9/11 having changed the international position of Sudan and encouraged the exertion of greater international political pressure for humanitarian missions and the peace process.

3.       The agile and creative operation that was put in place in the region between 2002 and 2006, which allowed access to be maintained with minimal impediments. 

Turning to Somalia, though echoing some of these considerations, Brian Tisdall argued that there were four main lessons about acceptance from the experience in Somalia since 1976:

1.       A need to ‘go the distance’ with a long-term presence and response, requiring donor patience, is essential to the long process of gaining access to a country;

2.       Humanitarian actors that are understood by all parties as neutral, independent and impartial will ultimately have better access;

3.       Humanitarian actors must be able to deliver on the programmes that they promise – the ICRC position in Somalia is strengthened by its support from the Somali people based on their experience of previous programmes;

4.       Work must be accomplished through local colleagues and in collaboration with local actors, in ICRC’s case the Somali Red Crescent Society and Somali colleagues on the ground.

Citing MSF’s experience in Afghanistan, from which it withdrew in 2004 before returning in 2009, Marc DuBois emphasised that strategies for gaining access – or the decision to pull out when conditions are becoming untenable – are often strongly contested within organisations. There is a tension between those members of an organisation of who feel that it is necessary to draw a line in the sand and those who, more pragmatically, feel that the delivery of aid can remain important even if highly compromised. In the case of Afghanistan, he stressed, the decision to withdraw came following a targeted killing of an MSF staff member, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility at the time, and which raised questions about the responsibility of the organisation in such a setting. The decision to return took place in the context of changes to the situation in Afghanistan – armed actors in opposition to government found themselves controlling territory in which health services were needed, and humanitarian actors was viewed differently as a result.

Touching on the current situation in Syria, the panel considered the applicability of various frameworks or techniques that have been associated over time with attempts to gain access to people in need. There was a general consensus that the use of ‘corridors of tranquillity’ was not an effective or productive way of attempting to ensure the continuation of relief and protection work in a conflict setting. Their potential to become the favoured shooting range for attacks on aid convoys and the fact that, in Marc’s words, it is almost precisely when you would talk about the need for a a humanitarian corridor that you are least able to to create one that is safe and effective, were both cited as weaknesses of this proposal. The use of safe havens or protected areas was also criticised as flawed, with reference to the tragic experience in Srebrenica. Working in Syria, while the ICRC has a privileged partner in the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and is undertaking some cross-line work based on the government’s acceptance of its position in the country, it does not have access to all affected populations in Syria. In contrast, as a result of its lack of official approval, MSF has taken the decision to stage cross-border operations in rebel-held areas of Syria, with a fourth hospital recently established. The importance of understanding the reason why access has not been granted, however, was highlighted by all speakers as a necessary step in formulating the most effective way to engage with armed actors, whether government or opposition, on humanitarian issues.

With this in mind, the panel broached the question of practical difficulties relating to humanitarian negotiations; several questions from the floor were also directed towards this line of discussion. Sara Pantuliano spoke about the inadequate training and experience on the side of many humanitarian organisations in relation to negotiating with armed actors. This includes a limited understanding of IHL, which is a crucial failing in relation to being able to articulate the principles of humanitarian action and its position within conflict as well as the legal rights and obligations of parties to a conflict. Although Brian Tisdall noted the ICRC’s investment of resources in outreach to non-state groups, particularly since 2001, there was a feeling that many humanitarian actors have too poor an understanding of the structures, cultures and history of their interlocutors. To this have been added the downwards pressures of counter-terrorism legislation. Marc DuBois pointed to the incoherence of the international community as another spoiling factor in humanitarian negotiations: when one stakeholder breaks rank, it becomes difficult for others to hold their positions. At the same time, the implication of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the stabilisation agenda has undermined the impression of their independence. The potential of the UN to negotiate access on behalf of NGOs and other humanitarian organisations was viewed with uncertainty.

Broadening the horizon of discussions, panellists were asked about the design of the humanitarian system in light of its performance in recent years. Was it, Dennis McNamara asked, fit for purpose? Responses to this question acknowledged the association of the formal system with Western values and power structures. Marc noted two related concerns:

1.       Over the last decade, humanitarians have been forced to acknowledge the degree to which we were riding on the coattails of a certain power distribution in the world, namely the Western hegemony. Humanitarian actors didn’t anticipate this Achilles heel and may not view themselves as part of this hegemony, with its negative but also sometimes positive implications (for example, many would view Westerners as possessing high-level technical skills).

2.       The question of independence must be considered in relation to both practice and perception. One of the key factors in this is funding, particularly when coming from governments. But it also relates to the previous point: we will be increasingly challenged over the coming years about our level of independence from the Western neo-liberal agenda and its relatively narrow way of thinking about what humanitarian aid is and does.

Sara’s commentary emphasised that, when faced with recurring, political challenges, there is great need for creativity and flexibility. One source of change on this level is a greater attention to and complementarity with the role of regional and national actors. Another more systemic perspective would emphasise the role of coordinating mechanisms such as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and how they will respond to the continuing proliferation of actors on the ground. Brian emphasised the need to look beyond the system towards the network of so-called ‘non-traditional’ agencies, recognising their long experience and vital contribution to responding to the needs of affected populations. Despite the changes to the arena of emergency relief, he argued, IHL remained an important tenet of humanitarian work and needed to be more widely disseminated and better respected.

In closing, the panel’s reflections returned to the theme of what access can entail and the way it should be conceptualised. The issue of the protection dimension of access, as Dennis McNamara stressed, is often sidelined by a conception of access focused on the delivery of relief supplies, to the detriment of affected populations. As Sara Pantuliano underlined, there was significant agreement in the panel about the fact that ‘access’ is not about being present at all costs, but about seeing the extent to which a humanitarian organisation can be of assistance to the affected population. To successfully conduct negotiations, humanitarian organisations need to do more to support their staff through training and stronger engagement with normative frameworks. But the presence of uncontrollable or unknown factors – the role of social media and the digital mob, the emergence of alternative actors or the continuation of violence against aid workers and civilians – tempered the note of optimism that this consensus might otherwise have offered.


Aid agencies have begged, pleaded and smuggled their way into hot spots, sometimes working with those in charge, sometimes defying them. In complex, fragmented and polarised contexts, humanitarians have had to innovate, retreat tactically, seek local partners, sub-contract, and re-package themselves and their work. When does negotiating and haggling lead to ugly compromise on sacred principles of impartiality and independence?

The Humanitarian Policy Group and the International Committee of the Red Cross invite you to a discussion on the practical challenges organisations face in reaching those in need, and the strategies adopted to overcome them. Panelists will address difficult access problems, setbacks and hindrances, and review what responses could be applied universally. The discussions will take humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Syria and Myanmar as examples to focus the discussion.