Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed

The MSF Experience

Edited by
October 2011 9781849041638 256pp


From international NGOs to UN agencies, from donors to observers of humanitarianism, opinion is unanimous: in a context of the alleged ‘clash of civilizations’, 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.


‘For many commentators, the “golden age” of humanitarian intervention is over.  The War on Terror and the rise of strong states in the global South has reduced the room for manoeuvre for humanitarian agencies.  Western governments are once again constructing value-blind international alliances as a cornerstone of their own national security.  Drawing on its own history and recent experiences, in this important and timely book MSF unflinchingly surveys this new operational terrain.  The result is 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

‘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 book challenges the perception that humanitarian organisations cannot speak or act freely and that their influence is on the wane.’ — Law Society Journal

‘This is a book about realism: the art of doing what’s possible in impossible situations, and preserving reputation and skills to provide relief in the next crisis, in the next country. Through seven case studies and an insightful history of modern humanitarian action, this collection of essays represents a maturing of MSF’s view of the world. Gone is the fundamentalist rant of “our principles at any price” and in its place is a more 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

‘The most detailed and self-critical inside account of the deals aid agencies are forced to negotiate, often with groups and regimes which abuse human rights, to continue their work.’ — Peter Beaumont, Guardian

‘Thank goodness for MSF. Where else would we find such candour and self-criticism? Laid out here are unblinking accounts of the dilemmas facing the humanitarian agencies in a chaotic world, and clear-eyed appraisals of how MSF tries, and sometimes fails, to respond with its principles intact. Let’s hope the other relief agencies are paying attention.’ — Peter Gill, Journalist and author of Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia since Live Aid

”This is a very valuable book. It shows one of the world’s greatest 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 honest, 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.’  — Hugo Slim, Oxford Institute of Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, University of Oxford, and author of Killing Civilians: Method, Madness and Morality in War

‘Whilst MSF has acquired a reputation for ‘speaking out’ on behalf of the victims of conflicts and disasters, this fascinating and timely book shows that this tradition, always rather ambiguously adhered to, is today very much under threat. Longstanding concerns that public declarations will jeopardise MSF’s aid operations have now been supplemented by concerns that these declarations will add weight to calls for military intervention and for prosecutions in international courts, thereby further jeopardising MSF operations on the ground. Meanwhile, a range of governments in conflict-affected countries are reining in free speech through formal contracts with NGOs. Using a series of illuminating case studies, 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’ (whether these are civil wars, Western wars, or both). The book also exemplifies MSF’s traditions of self-criticism and internal disagreement, traditions that – in an age of public relations and self-promotion – are now more valuable than ever.’ — David Keen, Professor of Conflict Studies, London School of Economics and Political Science

‘A great fact-filled book that will broaden your horizons on the very admirable work of people involved in the Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) organization.’ — Bizindia


Claire Magone spent several years working with Action Contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger) and MSF, and went on to coordinate Sidaction’s international programmes.

Michaël Neuman is Director of Studies at MSF–Crash. He joined MSF in 1999, alternating between missions in the field and positions at MSF headquarters. From 2008—2010, Neuman served on the board of directors of the French and US sections of MSF. He is co-editor of Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience (2012).

Fabrice Weissman is Coordinator and a Director of Studies at MSF–Crash. A specialist in Sub-Saharan Africa, he has been working with MSF since 1995, and spent many years in the field. He is the editor of In the Shadow of ‘Just Wars’: Violence, Politics and Humanitarian Action (2004), and co-editor of Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience (2012).

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