The Cost of Humanitarian Access to Civilians

While international NGOs working in conflict zones provide lifesaving emergency services in sometimes highly volatile contexts, beneficiaries yearning for a return to normalcy sometimes question why this help isn't getting them any closer to peace.

Humanitarian principles are central to establishing and maintaining access to affected populations whether in the context of a natural disaster, an armed conflict or a complex emergency. These principles identify the purpose of humanitarian action (humanity), the scope of its interventions (neutrality), who it should seek to help (impartiality) and how it should seek funding to accomplish its tasks (operational independence).

In following these principles, the humanitarian community recognizes that avoiding the “politization” of emergency aid is critical to preserving “access” and maintaining the “acceptance” of those in need of lifesaving help.

However, for beneficiaries the reason for these principles does not always come through. Instead, many communities turn against NGOs that they see as gauging the money coming from countries that support the very oppressive regimes that are often at the source of their plight and suffering.

For NGOs, the consequence of adherence to these principles is the creation of an INGO community fiercely protective of its “apolitical” nature and staunchly opposed to crossing into the realm of addressing “hot button” topics. Unfortunately, these issues are often the drivers of conflict. The cost of these humanitarian principles is the perception that helping beneficiaries resolve these core grievance means entering a political sphere outside of their mandate which could jeopardize their impartiality and their access to populations in need. So while civilians wait for the State to provide for them, entire communities remain powerless and dependent on external support to meet even just their basic needs.

But is there really a choice to be made between access and resolving core grievances?

Emergency mediation may provide the solution longued for by communities in conflict. Indeed, one could argue that emergency conflict resolution services responds to the humanitarian principle of promoting the humanity of individuals: it diminishes the violence and increases civilian protection. Third parties are impartial, don’t take side, don’t give advice and the topics being addressed responds to the expressed needs of the participants. Inclusive and participatory dialogue processes empower the parties in conflict to find their own solutions. Community mediators are operationally independent and work without external pressure. For those who include “voluntary” in the principles, participation in mediation is certainly that as well.

So why such a fear of letting people resolve their own problems?

It could be that where emergency mediation services departs from traditional humanitarian principles is that it makes no excuses about engaging in “controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature" [1]. See mediators want to pierce the abscess, confront the taboo and deal with what's at the root of the conflict, IF the parties are ready to do so.

Or, it could be that we fear unleashing highly intense emotional reactions of fear, hurt and anger, which we know needs to be dealt with but because of our own uneasy with outbursts we prefer letting communities burry these feelings and focus on what's tangible?

Professional mediators are trained to harness high intensity emotions and transform it into collaboration.

In complex conflict settings where fragile State structures have minimal control over their territory, often lack legitimacy and even may have lost control over the means of violence, wouldn’t failing to address a community's vulnerability to the constant threat of violence almost be inhumane?

Empowering parties to resolve deep rooted issues is certainly a way of gaining the respect of beneficiaries seeking to regain control over their lives at a time when everything seems to want their demise. So why not help them do that too?



[1] OCHA. “OCHA on Message: Humanitarian Principles” (April 2010). Retrieve from




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