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PHAP Hosts Discussion on the Challenges and Compromises of Humanitarian Access

Michaël Neuman

Director of studies at Crash / Médecins sans Frontières, Michaël Neuman graduated in Contemporary History and International Relations (University Paris-I). He joined Médecins sans Frontières in 1999 and has worked both on the ground (Balkans, Sudan, Caucasus, West Africa) and in headquarters (New York, Paris as deputy director responsible for programmes). He has also carried out research on issues of immigration and geopolitics. He is co-editor of "Humanitarian negotiations Revealed, the MSF experience" (London: Hurst and Co, 2011). He is also the co-editor of "Saving lives and staying alive. Humanitarian Security in the Age of Risk Management" (London: Hurst and Co, 2016).

On 19th of September, PHAP hosted a discussion on the compromises and negotiations the humanitarian aid community must contend with during crisis situations with Michael Neuman and Antonio Donini.

Find below the report of the discussion.

Although a "shrinking humanitarian space" is often cited as an emerging problem in situations of armed conflict and other complex humanitarian emergencies, humanitarian access has always been dependent on negotiations with interest-seeking powers, leading to compromises and difficult decisions on whether or not to intervene, according to two experts on negotiating humanitarian access, addressing PHAP members and guests during an event in Brussels on 19 September 2012.

"The politicization of aid could be considered less a misuse than a condition for its existence," said Michaël Neuman, Research Director at the Centre de Réflexion sur l'Action et les Savoirs Humanitaires at Médecins Sans Frontières. "There was never any obviousness of access for humanitarian assistance, and experience tells us that there are no legitimate parameters that are valid at all times for humanitarianism."

Mr. Neuman, who is the co-author of the recently published Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience (2011), emphasized that "we need to acknowledge that set principles can in no way guarantee the safe passage to victims." Nevertheless, according to Mr. Neuman, careful reflection on the effects of any interventions, weighing the potential to save lives against any potential negative long-term effects, is essential in order to make informed decisions.He was joined by Antonio Donini, Senior Researcher at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University and editor of The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action (to be released in November). Mr. Donini concurred with Mr Neuman's analysis, stating that humanitarian aid has always been instrumentalized for political goals. What has changed, according to Mr. Donini, is that humanitarian actors are now more realistic, with greater awareness of the pathologies that accompany humanitarian action in volatile environments, which he hopes will help us avoid the most egregious mistakes of the past. In his words, "we are still paying for entry tickets, but we are at least smarter now."

The ensuing discussion with the members of the audience, comprising distinguished PHAP members and guests from a wide range of organizations, focused on the changes to the humanitarian sphere arising from the increasing importance of new types of actors. Mr. Donini suggested that the rise of NGOs in non-Western countries might lead to a healthy debate on humanitarian norms, which were born in the West. Mr. Neuman said that his book was meant to encourage MSF to engage with a wider set of actors, including NGOs in emerging countries. As a final remark, Mr. Donini expressed a wish for more organizations to follow MSF's example and attempt to improve the transparency of their decision-making processes.

The 19 September event was organized as part of a global series of seminars and other activities organized by PHAP, and provided an opportunity for members to discuss pressing topics in the field of humanitarian assistance and protection. Brussels - like Khartoum, Jerusalem, Nairobi, Islamabad, Kabul, and Geneva - has a high concentration of PHAP members and was during the same week the location of PHAP's Advanced Professional Training on International Humanitarian Law. These training courses have been organized in Brussels each year since 2008, hosted by the Belgian Ministry of Defence and in cooperation with PHAP's academic partner, the Harvard Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research. Similar courses have been produced by PHAP in 10 other locations around the world in the last two years. The event was followed by an informal networking gathering for PHAP's members.

Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed is available online in English and French and is being translated into more languages. The Golden Fleece is published by Kumarian Press and is expected to be available in November 2012.


To cite this content :
Michaël Neuman, “PHAP Hosts Discussion on the Challenges and Compromises of Humanitarian Access”, 3 octobre 2012, URL :

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