Terms of Engagement: Conditions and Conditionality in Humanitarian Action

Nicholas Leader
Joanna Macrae
Overseas Development Institute (ODI)
Publication Year:
April 28, 2020
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions


The conference was convened by the Overseas Development Institute and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue to discuss different views on the ‘Terms of engagement’ between humanitarian and political actors. It was held in Geneva on the 3 and 4 May, 2000. This report aims to give an overview of the various debates, and indicate areas of consensus and of disagreement. As the conference was held under ‘Chatham House rules’ contributions have not been attributed. The roots of humanitarian crises are political, and, as is commonly pointed out, political problems require political solutions. Humanitarian actors thus must engage with a variety of political actors in the pursuit of humanitarian objectives. On the one hand, humanitarians engage with, usually western, donor governments. And, on the other, humanitarians must necessarily deal with the parties to a particular conflict. The conference aimed to examine and clarify these relationships. In particular it was hoped to clarify and develop consensus on the distinction between the conditions that humanitarian agencies need to work in a principled and effective way, and the growing use of conditionality by donors and agencies, for both humanitarian and political purposes.1 International humanitarian and human rights law places a number of obligations on the parties to a conflict. Primarily of course this is in terms of how they fight and the respect due to those ‘hors de combat’. IHL also places obligations on authorities in terms of permitting impartial humanitarian action for those they are unable or unwilling to assist and protect. In many conflicts however, these obligations are ignored - indeed abuse of civilians is often a goal. The compliance of warring parties with IHL and human rights law is thus the primary issue facing most humanitarian operations. However, faced with non-compliance, humanitarian agencies are placed in a dilemma, and this was the focus of the conference. Agencies themselves have very little influence over the behaviour of the belligerents, and thus over the conditions in which they have to work. Yet if they refused to work unless the conditions were perfect they would be unable to promote the interests of large numbers of conflict-affected people. In effect, the question is how far can they compromise their principles?


The situation is further complicated by the growing role of humanitarianism in world politics. While this has been welcomed by many humanitarians, it has been accompanied by a blurring of humanitarian and political agendas. This has been most notable in the increasing demand, particularly from western donor governments, that external humanitarian and political action should be ‘coherent’ in terms of addressing a particular crisis.2 This demand has arisen from the growing appreciation of the political impact of humanitarian aid, most importantly in Rwanda, and the appreciation of the importance of political action to address humanitarian crises. However, for many this ‘integrationist’ approach to humanitarian and political action risks compromising the independence of humanitarian action, it risks subordinating it to political goals not necessarily in the interests of the victims and so reduces the ability of humanitarians to respond to need alone, a core element of the humanitarian ethic. These problems are particularly acute in ‘unstrategic’ conflicts were there is little international political will. These two developments: the deliberate violation of IHL by the belligerents; and the growing demand for a ‘coherent‘ political and humanitarian approach, have combined to put new pressures on humanitarian action and to redefine the nature of the relationship between humanitarianism and politics.


Thus agencies are forced to confront a number of issues on which the conference was focussed. • What conditions need to be in place to work in a principled and effective way?

  • What can agencies do to promote (and not undermine) those conditions?
  • What should agencies do when those conditions no longer exist?
  • What should be the role of external political actors in promoting those conditions?
  • And what, if anything, is the role of conditionality in this process?

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