Humanitarian negotiations with armed non-state actors: key lessons from Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia

Briefing papers
March 2014

Insurgents and other armed groups are often seen as inherently predatory and hostile to aid workers, attacking staff, extorting money and looting goods and equipment, denying access and expelling aid organisations from areas under their control.

However, for aid workers, talking to armed groups is vital to reaching civilians in need of help. Yet in-depth analysis of armed groups has been largely neglected and aid agencies often lack the information they need to successfully engage with these actors to gain access to populations under their control.

This policy brief highlights key lessons from a two-year research project on humanitarian negotiations with armed non-state actors (ANSAs) in Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan. It draws from over 500 interviews with aid workers, members of armed groups (including the Taliban, Al-Shabaab and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North) and others.

Key messages

  • Aid agencies working in conflict situations must engage with all parties to the conflict in order to reach civilians in need of assistance and to advocate on issues of protection. This requires careful and sustained dialogue.
  • Effective engagement with armed groups requires significant staff time and resources and capacity, which many aid agencies have not sufficiently developed or prioritised.
  • Joint advocacy and more closely coordinated action can help tackle the broader challenges to engagement with ANSAs, particularly counter-terrorism legislation and other policies designed to obstruct humanitarian dialogue.