Issue 62 - Article 14

Gaining acceptance: lessons from engagement with armed groups in Afghanistan and Somalia

September 12, 2014
Ashley Jackson
Young men stand guard during a demonstration by a local militia in Marka, Somalia

While securing ‘acceptance’ is vital for aid agencies operating in insecure environments, precisely how acceptance is secured and understood varies. Recent research on engaging with armed groups in Afghanistan and Somalia provides greater insight into the kinds of ‘acceptance’ tactics and strategies that are most effective – and those that may pose unintended risks.

Operationalising ‘acceptance’

Despite the extensive literature devoted to acceptance strategies, and the widely held belief that acceptance is essential for humanitarian agencies to maintain presence, field research in Afghanistan and Somalia indicated that ‘acceptance’ remains inconsistently understood and implemented. Few agencies in either country had a clearly articulated acceptance strategy, implemented consistently throughout the organisation; acceptance appeared to be assumed more than actively cultivated through engagement with belligerents. Consequently, some senior managers were not fully aware of how staff at the local level were gaining or maintaining access. In some cases, managers appeared to want to know as little as possible, or perhaps felt unable to ask field staff exactly what they were doing to gain access. One senior representative of an international NGO in Afghanistan commented that ‘we trust our people in the field’ to ‘gauge risk and then do what’s needed to get the programmes done … we don’t discuss it internally much’. Ashley Jackson and Antonio Giustozzi, Talking to the Other Side:Humanitarian Negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, HPG Working Paper, 2012, p. 5.

This avoidance of direct, intentional engagement with armed groups is hardly surprising in volatile operating environments. More active approaches require significant long-term investment in staff training, analysis, outreach and communication – costs that are often more difficult to justify to donors than ‘hard’ security expenditures such as blast walls or armed guards. A Review of Critical Issues for the Humanitarian Community, Commissioned by the conveners of the Montreaux X Conference, Humanitarian Outcomes, 2012.  Additionally, donor governments have exerted pressure on aid agencies not to engage with Al-Shabaab in Somalia and, until recently, the Taliban in Afghanistan. In Somalia, counterterror restrictions are a powerful deterrent to engaging with Al-Shabaab. In Afghanistan, interviewees described the ‘chilling effect’ on engagement of the Afghan government’s expulsion of two Western diplomats in late 2007 for allegedly engaging in political talks with the Taliban in Helmand.

In most cases, rather than avoid engagement altogether, the risks of engagement were transferred to field staff or communities. In Afghanistan, Afghan aid workers were often left to negotiate access as best they could, with little support and at significant personal risk. One Afghan staff member at an international NGO commented: ‘If I say it’s not safe or that sometimes we have to pay at checkpoints, will I lose my job? I have promised the people support, will they be abandoned?’ Jackson and Giustozzi, Talking to the Other Side: Humanitarian Negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, p. 6.  Local aid workers face particular risks and appear to make very different calculations than their superiors might, especially if they perceive their job to be at risk or fear that support for their community will be cut off if senior managers discover precisely what must be done to maintain presence.

With respect to Somalia, many senior aid agency representatives in Nairobi and elsewhere strongly rejected the claim that their staff negotiated access with Al-Shabaab. However, aid workers on the ground in Al-Shabaab areas, often from the same agencies, consistently reportedly that they directly or indirectly negotiated with Al-Shabaab as a matter of necessity. While they asserted that their track records, with the majority having been present for extended periods, were critical in enabling them to effectively negotiate with Al-Shabaab, community acceptance alone was not seen as sufficient to enable access. To varying degrees and regardless of the tactics employed, such agencies were forced to engage with Al-Shabaab to secure permission to operate. Ashley Jackson and Abdi Aynte, Talking to the Other Side: Humanitarian Negotiations with Al-Shabaab in Somalia, HPG Working Paper, 2013.

While communities did in some cases appear to play vital roles as interlocutors with armed groups, this was largely limited to areas where community members were either trusted by the group, or the group was not predisposed to limit access. Even so, significant risks were involved. While some degree of risk sharing is unavoidable, the ethics of approaches that rely on community members risking their lives in order to enable access – particularly in the absence of well-planned strategies and support – raise serious questions about risk transfer and duty of care.

Active acceptance and the role of structured engagement

More active approaches to gaining acceptance require an organisational commitment to structured engagement, directly or indirectly, with armed groups (as well as the host government) at all levels. An established internal policy, adhered to up and down an aid agency’s hierarchy and supplemented with substantial training and support, should guide this engagement. Few agencies examined in the research in Afghanistan and Somalia, with the notable exception of the ICRC and MSF, consistently pursue a structured approach to engagement – or, at least, few are willing to talk publicly about it if they do. There seemed to be greater readiness to openly pursue such an approach among more purely ‘humanitarian’ agencies, as opposed to multi-mandate actors. Comparatively few individuals in senior positions at multi-mandate agencies reported that their agency pursued a structured approach to negotiations with the Taliban or Al-Shabaab. However, such engagement is more widespread than agencies are willing to openly admit. Several multi-mandate agencies do pursue more structured approaches but are not willing to talk about it publicly.

Structured engagement involves consistent and strategic interaction at multiple levels. The value of sustained engagement with the highest levels of an armed group is that it provides additional assurance that access will be granted and a channel for communication at the most senior levels when serious security or other issues arise. It also provides an opportunity to engage on policy issues that engagement with local fighters, who are often simply following orders, does not.

While engaging with the leaders of armed groups may improve access, it is by no means a guarantee that what the leadership approves the rank and file consistently obeys. In Afghanistan, an international multi-mandate aid agency that preferred not to be named described its engagement as occurring at three key levels: the high-level strategic leadership in Pakistan; provincial leaders; and the local leadership. At the leadership level, engagement focuses on formal agreement and ensuring that this is passed on to field commanders. Provincial engagement with Taliban shadow governors or military commissioners focuses on activities and policy issues. Local engagement is largely conducted through intermediaries in the community to ensure acceptance from local commanders. An international humanitarian agency operating in South Central Somalia described its engagement in similar terms, though this was complicated by Al-Shabaab’s refusal to engage directly at the senior leadership levels. Aid agency managers in Nairobi communicated with senior Al-Shabaab leaders through trusted intermediaries, while field staff engaged directly or through trusted intermediaries with Al-Shabaab commanders and Humanitarian Coordination Officers (individuals appointed by Al-Shabaab specifically to coordinate aid activities).

The case of polio vaccinations in Afghanistan shows how critical such engagement can be. Through negotiations with Taliban leaders, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and their implementing partners gained permission to conduct polio vaccinations beginning in August 2007. Taliban leader Mullah Omar issued a letter, and has reportedly issued similar letters or directives for subsequent campaigns, urging fighters to allow vaccination and urging parents to have their children vaccinated. The Taliban appear to have generally recognised the public relations value of such exercises, and their language has become increasingly positive.

Structured engagement is not a panacea. The degree of uniformity and command and control within an armed group often determines the level of success that can be achieved. Where armed groups are fragmented, as is arguably the case with both the Taliban and Al-Shabaab, engagement is more complex and precarious. In Afghanistan, the ICRC has devoted significant resources and time to structured engagement with all sides. Even so, it was forced to review its modes and strategy for engagement following the targeted killing of one of its delegates in 2003. While initially pulling back operations in some areas of the country, the agency pursued dialogue with the Taliban about the incident, which in turn created opportunities to engage on IHL, increase mutual trust and, eventually, expand operations again. Fiona Terry, ‘The International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan: Reasserting the Neutrality of Humanitarian Action’, International Review of the Red Cross, vol. 92, no. 882, 2010.  Similarly, MSF withdrew from Afghanistan following the execution of five of its employees by the Taliban in 2004, but began to re-engage in 2009. The process was gradual and required negotiations with all sides, including the government and various branches of the Taliban leadership. Xavier Crombe with Michiel Hofman, ‘Afghanistan: Regaining Leverage’, in Claire Magone et al. (eds), Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience (London: Hurst & Co, 2011).

There are also risks. Particularly in the case of Somalia, an organisation which falls foul of counter-terror restrictions could potentially have its funding cut and face civil and criminal penalties. Engaging in a structured and deliberate fashion may also be interpreted as recognition of the armed group’s authority, and confer legitimacy on it. When an armed group controls territory and holds authority over an area, aid agencies must seek its permission in order to operate safely, and recognition in this sense is unavoidable, especially where the armed group is the de facto authority.

This kind of engagement also requires significant resources and time. After the bombing of its headquarters in Baghdad in 2003, the ICRC deployed a team of three to five full-time staff dedicated to relationship-building and regaining acceptance. Humanitarian Practice Network, Good Practice Review: Operational Security Management in Volatile Environments, GPR 8, 2010.  The challenge lies in convincing donors that such costs are a sound investment. Fortunately, some good practice exists for agencies and donors to draw upon. One humanitarian donor agency in Afghanistan provided fixed-term funding to an agency to build relations in order to establish operations in the south of the country, where the Taliban are heavily present. In both Afghanistan and Somalia, donors have quietly supported high-level humanitarian negotiations and funded NGO security fora that play a pivotal role in helping agencies to map and understand armed groups.


As Larissa Fast and Michael O’Neill argue – and the examples from Afghanistan and Somalia support this – aid agencies require ‘a clearer understanding and a more consistent application of the acceptance approach, and a systematic assessment of its effectiveness in different contexts in order to evaluate whether and under what circumstances the acceptance approach works’. Larissa Fast and Michael O’Neill, ‘A Closer Look at Acceptance’, Humanitarian Exchange No. 47 June 2010.  Acceptance cannot simply be assumed but must be earned – not only from those individuals in need of humanitarian assistance, but also from armed groups who often pose the most formidable barriers to humanitarian access. Where armed opposition groups are active, strategically negotiating the terms of engagement offers aid agencies the best hope of reaching those in need of assistance, while minimising the potential that doing so plays into the hands of belligerents or furthers the conflict.

Ashley Jackson is a Research Associate with the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG).


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