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Humanitarian Advocacy and Darfur

Time (GMT +01) 17:30 18:30


Sorcha O’Callaghan, Humanitarian Policy Group

Brendan Cox, Executive Director, Crisis Action

Rebecca Dale, Independent Policy Adviser on Sudan

Other participants:

Ute Kollies, Humanitarian Affairs Office with the United Nations

Sarah Maguire

Andrew Lawday

Amelia Bookstein, SCF

Jo Leadbetter, Oxfam GB


James Darcy, ODI

A meeting to consider the challenges for humanitarian organisations undertaking advocacy on high profile political emergencies.

  1. James Darcy, in the chair, introduced the panel members and the topic and said that the intention of the meeting was to use the experience of Darfur to illustrate wider dilemmas concerning humanitarian advocacy in complicated politicised environments.
  2. The experience of Darfur raises questions of how firstly, humanitarian advocacy should locate itself within a politicised environment where a plethora of organisations participate in advocacy, and secondly, what conflicts might arise between providing relief assistance and engaging in public advocacy?
  3. While these questions have arisen before, Darfur provides a particularly stark example of the dilemmas humanitarian organisations face, given that the range of organisations involved in advocacy on Darfur extends well beyond traditional humanitarian actors.
  4. Sorcha O’Callaghan, ODI Humanitarian Policy Group explained that this presentation accompanies a short research piece (Humanitarian advocacy and Darfur: the challenge of neutrality). Its intention was to highlight topical issues. Given the predominant focus on international actors in the public sphere, it was not intended as an exhaustive survey.
  5. The paper raises three major issues.
  • Firstly, what is the legitimate role for humanitarian organisations in politicised emergencies? Of the core humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, and neutrality, neutrality has often been interpreted as a pragmatic principle necessary to gain access. The commitment to neutrality has eroded considerably in the last twenty years, particularly within multi-mandate agencies.
  • Secondly, what competency do humanitarian organisations have to engage in certain more political discussions?
  • Thirdly, what implications does advocating in politicised environments have for relief operations, for example in terms of insecurity and access?
An analysis of the frequency of press statements on Darfur by a cross-section of humanitarian agencies found that there was very limited public advocacy at the start of the crisis in 2003 and early 2004. As bureaucratic obstacles fell, advocacy became progressively more intense, with stronger calls for action on Gender-Based Violence and the deployment of peacekeepers. With greater advocacy on issues of civilian protection, the risks associated with advocacy started to appear and aid workers began facing increasing harassment and insecurity. The public advocacy of operational agencies decreased markedly in late 2005 and 2006 as agencies returned to speaking about issues relating to humanitarian assistance.In private, more advocacy took place out of the spotlight using private lobbying, consortia and collective advocacy, and by working with allies such as human rights advocates and campaigning coalitions. This reduced the extent to which specific organisations were implicated in the message. In the private arena, the language of protection has the potential to couch highly politicised discussions (e.g. military intervention). Do advocates have clear frameworks of how far to go in these discussions? Where humanitarian agencies choose to advocate on any factor that might impact the humanitarian conditions of the population, might their role not potentially be limitless?Darfur has witnessed a growing trend towards collective action and a greater involvement of popular mobilisation campaigns in advocacy, driven by fears of genocide. While agencies may welcome the high level of international attention, this also raises major concerns. Such campaigns have the potential to oversimplify the dynamics of a complex emergency and force deadline diplomacy (‘doing something’). An example would be the advocacy in favour of no-fly zones, where a number of aid agencies responded with concerns of the implications that this might have for their access to vulnerable populations.Darfur raises questions beyond traditional dilemmas regarding the difficulty of advocacy in politicised humanitarian emergencies. Firstly, do we rely too much on aid actors to provide information of needs and raise the alarm? Secondly, what risks are humanitarian organisations presented with by adopting a more pragmatic form of the principle of neutrality? Thirdly, where are the limits to advocacy by humanitarian organisations? How much expertise really exists within humanitarian agencies, and do internal advocacy units place internal pressures within organisations to expand the scope of their advocacy?Brendan Cox, Executive Director, Crisis Action, welcomed the fact that this conversation was taking place and that, with the many forgotten crises in the world, Darfur remained high of the international political agenda. Are the problems that this creates smaller than the opportunity it provides?The advocacy in Darfur would not be what it is without the expertise of operational humanitarian organisations.The key judgement is ascertaining the relative successes and failures of advocacy in Darfur. In terms of successes, in 2004, attacks by the Government of Sudan fell, humanitarian access improved and African Union troops were deployed. There were equally failures; too long a lead-time for advocacy to impact protection on the ground, and too great a reliance on unsophisticated ‘something must be done’ advocacy (the DPA was a symptom of such non-strategic pressure).The lines between neutrality, impartiality and politics are not clear and all concepts sit on a continuum. Their application will depend on the agency and issue. The principle of neutrality is very important, and humanitarian organisations are compelled to make judgements as to the relative costs and benefits of compromising a strict view of neutrality.Humanitarian organisations need to spend time to make these judgements better, and need better resources and greater professionalism in doing so.Humanitarian organisations need to be innovative in using different advocacy tactics and strategies. A lack of resources and experience means certain tactics are underutilisedIs there a duty for humanitarian organisations to engage in advocacy? Not speaking out also creates perceptions about a crisis. The wider adoption of a needs-based approach and the general prioritisation of protection concerns suggest that humanitarian organisations will wish to selectively engage in advocacy.Rebecca Dale, Independent Policy Adviser on Sudan, argued that for operational agencies in Darfur, advocacy had a complex array of impacts on the beneficiaries, staff and organisational reputations. Agencies were faced with a ‘you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ dilemma.The Darfur crisis highlighted the need for strong communication between programmes and advocacy staff so messages were sufficiently nuanced and the risks of advocacy understood. Systems and communications channels were an important part of advocacy strategies in Darfur. Advocacy occurred at a number of different levels. A tension existed between operational agencies who faced pressure to come up with advocacy messages and had different objectives to campaigning organisations.In the aftermath of the War-on-Terror, it is more difficult for international NGOs to be perceived as independent humanitarian actors and for their advocacy not to be judged as deeply politicised. This is also blurred by donors who promote a coherent approach to their humanitarian, development and political agendas. There is substantial suspicion surrounding the protection doctrine and Responsibility-to-Protect agenda, whose promotion has accompanied a rise in interventionism in Afghanistan and Iraq.Advocacy surrounding Darfur has been increasing internet, media and star-driven. Hungry domestic constituencies are increasingly looking for an issue to engage on and Darfur is an easier issue on which to engage than, for example, the Palestinian conflict. Such high-profile campaigns raise substantial funds for aid organisations presenting potential moral dilemmas.While humanitarian organisations are generally attempting to widen the definition of humanitarianism, the Sudanese government is simultaneously trying to narrow its interpretation of neutrality, in reacting against reports of gender-based violence and witnessing by humanitarian organisations on the basis of programme data.Another moral dilemma is presented where donor governments have considered making the restriction of humanitarian access a red-line for deciding whether they would call for sanctions against the government.Humanitarian agencies are often placed under pressure to take political advocacy positions and asked for their assessment of larger, non-humanitarian, questions. Considerable pressure is being placed on humanitarians to have all the answers and the spotlight itself can be intoxicating.There are different definitions of neutrality. In particular, Rebecca raised an ICRC definition, where adhering to the principle of neutrality did not imply condoning violations of IHL.

During the discussion, the following selected points were raised:

  • Ute Kollies, Humanitarian Affairs Office with the United Nations, suggested that a more useful way to frame this discussion would be to ask what the aim or purpose of advocacy is.
  • Sarah Maguire asked: what is the point at which the right-based approach becomes political? Sorcha O’Callaghan responded saying that humanitarian and human rights actors have different objectives. Humanitarian organisations are primarily motivated with saving lives on an immediate basis, whereas human rights organisations are often more concerned with long-term judicial results.
  • Andrew Lawday suggested that ‘advocacy’ might be the wrong way of thinking about this topic. Might ‘strategic communication’ not be a better description? Brendan Cox said that he was not clear of the difference between the two. Advocacy should use a range of different strategies and this requires experienced personnel.
  • Amelia Bookstein from SCF suggested that large agencies might benefit from a little more humility. Sorcha O’Callaghan agreed that organisations might demonstrate humility but must be equally accountable for their advocacy statements, and continually ask whether they have sufficient expertise to take such positions. Internally within organisations, there is a risk that humanitarian field staff face continual pressure to come up with ‘asks’ by advocacy departments.
  • Jo Leadbetter of Oxfam GB raised the question as to whether humanitarian agencies now exist in a ‘new world’ and must in effect become mini-think tanks. She suggested that organisations needed to be humble but also creative and ambitious and explore new advocacy tactics.


This meeting launched HPG Policy Brief 28 and had the intention of using the experience of Darfur to illustrate wider dilemmas concerning humanitarian advocacy in complicated politicised environments. It considered the challenges that humanitarian organisations face when undertaking advocacy on high profile political emergencies; the responsibility that organisations have to speak out on the crisis in Darfur; whether they have the competency or credibility to call for specific measures; and whether advocacy on political emergencies was consistent with the humanitarian principle of neutrality.