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Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed


PUBLICATION: Released just a few weeks before Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) celebrates its fortieth anniversary, this book sets out to deliberately puncture a number of myths which place humanitarianism above politics. It is a candid examination of the compromises MSF made – some successfully others less so – to try and help the people suffering most in the world today. 


Case studies from recent conflicts such as Yemen, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan lay bare the reality of MSF’s efforts to reach the most affected people, and explore just what the limits of compromise should be. There are also a series of thematic essays that explore broader issues, such as the real usefulness of aid responses to natural disasters.

The book is written by MSF insiders, but is far from a PR exercise. Decisions made in the ‘heat of battle’ by MSF are unpicked and critiqued.

At a time where humanitarian actors are questioning their ability to overcome the obstacles they are encountering, this book seeks to help fuel the debate on their ambitions and the best ways of fulfilling them.

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


Humanitarain Negotiations Revealed, by Claire Magone, Michael Neuman and Fabrice Weissman

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