This six-day helpdesk review provides an overview of academic, policy and practitioner literature that explores lessons or evidence from efforts to establish joint operating principles agreed by
humanitarian actors to improve humanitarian access and factors that contributed to their success or failure? While there is some general guidance on strategies to address access constraints and
an emerging body of joint operating principles, there is a dearth of publically documented evidence on the success or failure of joint operating principles. Rather what emerges is a plethora of anecdotal information from a range of geographic contexts and an array of actors that suggests there is a role for joint operating principles and that they may have contributed to improved access in some contexts. However, there is much debate as to their efficacy amongst different actors. Given the diffuse nature of the evidence base, this report is structured in three parts:
- Part 1: provides an overview of access constraints faced by humanitarian actors and factors that may enable or constrain the delivery of humanitarian aid and an overview of joint operating principles and lessons learned.
- Part 2: provides an annotated bibliography of global and country-specific readings that touch on, or have relevance, for the development of joint operating principles and humanitarian access.
- Part 3: provides examples of operating principles.
In an effort to maintain a presence and continue to deliver on humanitarian commitments, a number of organisations have strengthened their risk management capabilities, and explore
strategies and operational practices aimed at creating greater acceptance for their activities and increasing their access to affected populations. Joint operating principles represent one such
mechanism. A number of principles have been articulated that underpin the actions of humanitarians (humanity; neutrality; impartiality; independence) and joint operating principles are
designed to preserve the sanctity of these.
Whilst joint operating principles attempt to establish a common platform for actions in complex settings, research demonstrates that organisations often adopt different approaches to managing
threats and negotiating access. Variables that influence an organisation’s negotiations include organisation’s size, the number of sectors it responds in, the Government’s knowledge of the
organisation (i.e. brand recognition or historic presence in the country), the experience of their staff, and an organisation’s influence within the coordination structure, among other factors
including geographic areas of operations and presence of non-state actors with whom negotiations will have to be conducted. Relationships with host government authorities (or alternate sources of authority i.e. non-state actors) at various levels are also critical to humanitarian operations but simultaneously represent a significantly increased vulnerability to various types of threats. Several sources of guidance exist to support practitioners in applying humanitarian principles but organisations often apply different approaches depending on the context. This has important ramifications for the development of joint operating principles.
Some anecdotal evidence suggests that joint operating principles have helped clarify expectations with armed groups. They have proved more helpful with relatively moderate groups, by providing staff members with a credible reference document to enable them to ask for passage at checkpoints; they have limited to no effect on more radical groups, such as Islamic State. Other reports suggest that whilst there are increasing attempts to establish joint operating principles, or at least to increase coordination and coherence between local and international actors, these often to have limited effect. SAVE suggests that in contexts such as Afghanistan, South Sudan and Syria, agencies also engage in ad-hoc, local-level coordination to devise joint approaches to negotiations outside the UN system; such efforts are also seen as useful. Further to this, it is commonly felt that coordination and information-sharing efforts continue to be hampered by lack of trust: among international organisations; between international and national organisations; and between organisations operating within a country and those across-borders.
A key message that emerges from this report is that there is a clear need for more evidence and independent academic research to understand the tensions and strategies used to overcome
restrictions to humanitarian access – indeed some of the tensions highlight contradictions in approaches between actors within the humanitarian community regarding negotiating access,
establishing red lines and ultimately have an influence on the viability of joint operating principles. Finally, in order to develop functional and appropriate joint operating principles, a number of
priorities are identified from existing literature.
- Strengthening analytic capacity: The world for humanitarians is increasingly complex and complicated. If they are to remain, significant players, they must learn to better analyse and understand it (Shannon, 2009). Developing JOPs requires an understanding of who the key humanitarian actors are within a given context, nature and geographic areas of engagement and the array of state and none state actors active. This may enable the development of JOPs that are relevant within a distinct geographic area or amongst a certain constellation of actors. This may allow a degree of flexibility for organisations who provide assistance to the hardest to reach to maintain operations (Belliveau, 2015; Egeland et al., 2011)
- Strengthening collective leadership: Addressing the leadership deficit, particularly around collective action, must be the priority. The most critical gap appears to be that between the international community’s diplomatic strategy and its approach to humanitarian assistance (ODI, 2018). Whilst some organisations have invested in training for negotiating with state and none state actors (i.e. MSF and ICRC) others have not. In order for JOPs to be developed mechanisms for collective action and negotiation must be established supported by investment, training and capacity building (Jackson, 2014).
- Resetting the relationship with the belligerents: Some authors comment on the need to demonstrate that the international community is unwilling to accept the increasingly predatory behaviour of belligerents (ODI, 2018). JOPs have been identified as performing such a function, establishing red lines and a means of engaging with armed actors (Haver & Carter, 2016; Svoboda et al., 2018). Egeland et al, (2011) suggest that a key objective should be to identify actions that can be taken, either temporarily or permanently, to reduce the indirect benefits the government (or others) is accruing from the humanitarian operation.
- Improving the capacity to manage risk: Outsiders struggle to understand how power and influence operate in a context such as South Sudan, making it difficult to manage the unintended consequences of actions. Building this understanding demands proximity and strong relationships with a range of local actors, and requires personnel to spend considerable time with those people who are the beneficiaries of their work (Belliveau, 2015; MSF, 2018). The development of JOPs can be supported by engaging with those who have been operational on the ground longest, they will have insights based on historical experience of how to navigate complex contexts.
- Acknowledging the heterogeneity of humanitarian actors: Whilst JOPs are designed to add a degree of coherence to engagement with a range of stakeholders, they often fail to acknowledge the different positions of humanitarian actors. Organisations such as ICRC and the MSF often avoid subscribing to such documents as they are deemed to impact their ability to deliver aid (MSF, 2018). By strengthening analytic capabilities and understanding the dynamic nature of conflict – JOPs may be developed for particular actors in certain areas. Engaging with and understanding actors or areas where JOPs may be less viable would better represent the fluid nature of conflict and the nature of hard to reach groups (Belliveau, 2015).
- Acknowledging the significant role of national and local staff: In many contexts, national and local staff are often the main delivery mechanism for aid. It is important to recognise the role they play and the risks they take. It is also important to acknowledge the impact they have on the legitimacy of aid (both positively and negatively) and how JOPs on their ability to undertake humanitarian work and the risks they take (Belliveau, 2015).