Issue 82 - Article 6

Humanitarian support for community negotiations with armed actors: Save the Children’s experience

January 16, 2023

Kiran Kothari

Lauren Meredith

Shooting a documentary about efforts by the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) to reduce the impact of the conflict on children.

Along with many humanitarians negotiating with armed actors, Save the Children (SC) is exploring ways to better support and work with communities. Drawing on their frontline experience of protection and child protection, and previous work alongside community organisations in Iraq and Sri Lanka, staff in SC’s Relations with Armed Actors and Negotiations Unit are working with regional and field colleagues to structure and facilitate humanitarian dialogues with state and non-state armed actors for access to services and protection activities. With SaferWorld, we have also explored various modes of cooperation with local civil society and individuals. For background see SC’s presentations of the Community Negotiations desk research at 2021 Global Protection Forum here and the findings from the field research and steps developed at Global Protection Forum 2022 here. Colleagues contributing to this research at different stages include Timo Mueller, Robert Jones, Sergio Triana, Fernanda Almeida, Lauren Meredith, Måns Welander, Hannah Jordan and Nicolas Alvares Munoz. From conversations with community partners in Syria, we learned how communities coalesce into groups during crises, and how we can be more trusting of each other in such situations.

Drawing on our organisation’s breadth of experience, we began working with colleagues at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) on research into community negotiations for self-protection. We consulted many other organisations and experts to learn from their experiences and explore how we can better support communities in crises. We sought to learn from our own experiences and from our colleagues across the humanitarian field before consulting communities. Questions we asked included: would more cooperative ways of working allow for increased leadership and influence for crisis-affected people over humanitarian action? Would it mean more influence over how local and international crisis response resources are accessed by and used within communities?

During research in 2021 in Colombia and South Sudan, community members were asked about their experiences in negotiations with armed actors to access goods, services and other resources and to address protection concerns, and how humanitarian organisations could best support community-led negotiations. Based on the findings, the following steps were outlined; with further refining, they could support and inform negotiations with armed actors by communities and humanitarians.

Steps in a community negotiations process based on findings of desk and in-country research

Tool 1 – context analysis

Context analysis

ProtectionAccessRisks
What protection risks are there? What does the community perceive as the main protection risks? What resources goods and services does the community struggle to access? What is the main reason for the restricted access? Identify role of humanitarian and their assistance. Is humanitarian presence boosting risks or minimising them?

It is important to understand why communities need to engage in negotiations and the specific risks they may face, so the first step is intended to identify specific protection concerns, challenges with access to resources, goods and services, and individual risks (Table 1). While protection and access challenges vary from community to community, the research identified key areas of concern in the communities the research focused on: in this case, the recruitment and use of children and a lack of access to healthcare and education. Our in-country research highlighted that communities negotiate for access to resources, goods and services and for protection reasons, but were more likely to engage in negotiation as a last resort, when faced with physical danger.

Communities, just like humanitarian actors, engage in some form of risk analysis prior to deciding whether to engage in negotiation. Civilians make informed assessments, take calculated risks and modify their tactics based on a detailed reading of the situation and their ‘lived knowledge’.  While these continuous risk analyses can contribute to safer programming, communities’ informal approaches could be systematised to further draw out the main threats. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Oxfam noted that ‘individuals were at risk of being targeted with violence or intimidation when the official project period finished’. Programming had to account for this, but the community made the final decision regarding which mitigation measures they wanted to put in place. Green, D. (2014) ‘How can aid agencies help citizens reduce risks and fight for their rights in the middle of a war zone?’ Oxford: Oxfam. This tool can help support the systematisation of risk analyses in both assessing when to take certain actions and engage in negotiations during and following interventions from humanitarian organisations, and ensuring that communities are involved in the final decision-making process.

Tool 2 -community capacities and skills

The second tool analyses community capacities, leadership structures and social cohesion as well as relationships with armed actors and other potential entry points for engagement (Figure 1). Interviews with community members, particularly in Colombia, suggest that many communities are highly organised, with internal leadership structures and community committees. Interviewees mentioned that community meetings allowed community members to present concerns for leaders to address. Approximately half of the survey respondents said that they trusted their community members and were willing to work collectively to address shared concerns. This sentiment was also expressed during interviews.

The degree of community organisation and social cohesion varies depending on the context. Communities in South Sudan, while organised to some extent, generally reported lower levels of social cohesion than in Colombia, meaning that members are less trusting of each other and less willing to work collectively to address shared concerns.

Youth reported that they were more willing than older members to work collectively with their community, and are seen as important bridges among community members. Developing an understanding of the degree of social cohesion within a specific community can help humanitarian actors determine what support to community structures might be needed prior to specific negotiations with armed actors.

Lastly, it is important to recognise the degree of interaction between communities and armed actors. In Colombia, almost all community participants suggested that the armed groups in their regions were ‘well known’ or ’moderately well known’ to them, while in South Sudan most suggested they were ‘not well known’. Several interviewees in South Sudan believed that being close to and having languages in common with armed groups would be beneficial. As one participant put it: ‘You cannot fight with your friend’. Research conducted by others suggests that communities rely on pre-existing relationships such as kinship and family ties to start a dialogue with armed actors. In the DRC, negotiations ‘depend heavily on the degree to which the armed group has social ties with the local community and the intensity of violence they perpetrate’. With newly arrived armed groups there is much less scope for negotiating measures to limit attacks. Armed groups with deep ties to communities, and which were concerned about their reputation and legitimacy, were particularly receptive to communities’ needs.

Tool 3 – humanitarian roles

Strategies to support communities should be co-designed by communities and humanitarian organisations based on the strengths, weaknesses and desires of those communities. Drawing from the context and communities’ capacities analysis (tools 1 and 2), this tool helps humanitarian actors to work with communities to identify their specific needs and avenues for humanitarian support (Figure 2).

Communities interviewed in our research asked for support in strengthening existing community capacities, preferring a collaborative approach to humanitarian aid. Specifically, communities requested that humanitarian organisations provide accompaniment, mediation and follow-up after negotiations, rather than direct intervention in negotiations. One Colombian interviewee noted that they believed that just the presence of a humanitarian organisation at community-led negotiations improved the outcome. In Oxfam’s 2016 study of the sustainability of community protection structures, the absence of an ‘animator’ was frequently cited as a key challenge: ‘[O]ften, the support most valued by community members, and which can have the strongest impact upon both process and outcome sustainability, involves a large amount of staff time, but not necessarily high activity costs’. Animators (in these community protection structures supported by Oxfam):

accompany protection structures throughout the lifespan of a project. They organise general assemblies, train committee members and local authorities on protection topics and support protection structures in their different activities, including in advocacy and awareness raising activities.

Thus the support that would be most valued by each community may vary, and this tool provides a list of questions to help humanitarian organisations to work with communities in defining their wishes and needs.

It is important to recognise that civilians should initiate, lead and manage their own negotiations. Communities should lead in conducting negotiations and framing decisions. In Colombia, for example, Masullo argues that the

successful functioning of peace communities (or ‘peace zones’) requires high levels of autonomy and local ownership. External actors should always be careful not to undermine grassroots ownership and autonomy.

Evidence suggests that, while humanitarian action should support technical capacity-building for any programmatic partnerships with local organisations, the nature and form of capacity-building support is a key factor in whether the partnership is successful, and that, to succeed, local organisation needs – at the very least – to decide the focus and form of capacity-building. Capacity strengthening should be seen as a two-way process, whereby communities also offer value in explaining contexts, culture and how to work in particular environments, but this is not widely recognised by international agencies. This tool allows for a conversation between communities and humanitarian organisations to address their needs and objectives.

Humanitarian organisations must also be mindful of their own red lines and principles when working with communities. As part of a negotiated compromise (between armed actors and civilians), civilians might have to spy for one armed group on another, or may decide to deceive armed actors, for example by sending fake letters supposedly from one armed actor to another, threatening attacks if abuses against the population do not stop.  Many countries have also criminalised any form of dialogue with proscribed armed groups. When defining their roles, humanitarian organisations must also determine whether the proposed support contravenes humanitarian principles or the organisation’s own policies and make it clear to the communities why they can or cannot provide support on certain negotiation strategies or compromises.

Tool 4 – preparing for negotiating with the counterpart

These two steps are close to the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) tools set out in CCHN’s field manual for negotiators. Both focus on the negotiation strategy, defining the goal of the negotiation as well as the negotiation parties (figures 3 and 4). These tools should consider findings from steps 1, 2 and 3, and can help draw together a coherent plan for negotiations.

Tool 5 – defining the negotiator and the counterpart

Our next steps on negotiations: working with communities on protection and education

From our review of research and experience, it is clear that we (humanitarians) must recognise that civilians are independent and have often developed their own strategies for protection. Even in high-intensity armed conflict as in Syria and Yemen, civilians seek to protect themselves and resist. Civilians develop a strong understanding of armed actors, learn which strategies work through trial and error and over time, and grow sceptical about the willingness and ability of international actors to come to their aid. Communities draw on a range of practical self-protection tactics, including neutrality, avoidance, accommodation, concealment and flight, submission, cooperation, contestation and witnessing and confrontation. These strategies have three overarching goals: physical safety, sustenance and life-sustaining services. These are goals we as humanitarians share.

The set of steps outlined here aim to provide additional means of analysing and planning negotiations, and where possible to better support communities in their negotiations with armed actors. Even where humanitarians conduct humanitarian negotiations separately on other distinct issues, some awareness of the compromises that communities are reaching will be essential if we are not to undermine their own negotiation efforts. More work needs to be done to clarify how humanitarians and communities can cooperate, especially when community or civilian strategies to cope with armed actors contradict humanitarians efforts.

Strategies to support communities have to be tailored to the context and to the intensity of the conflict. Communities may seek a range of support, from accompaniment to mediation and post-negotiation follow-up, rather than direct intervention in negotiations. Strategies should be jointly identified by communities and humanitarians based on the objectives, strengths and weaknesses of the community. Humanitarians often partner with communities through capacity-building efforts, but the form that such capacity-building takes will affect whether partnering is successful or not.

Both humanitarians and communities need to agree on the form and focus of such support so that the understanding between them is clear. This becomes important when such relations are tested. For example, in protracted conflicts, during phases when violence intensifies, the pressure on communities and humanitarians to make unprincipled or unwanted compromises with armed counterparts increases. During such phases, the principles and laws that humanitarians work with, that are intended to protect civilians, are often violated. And communities may make compromises that involve such violations. In such circumstances, how might we as humanitarians responsibly support communities in their dialogues when they significantly diverge from norms we want to see upheld? How do we manage community expectations that a decision to collaborate with humanitarians will result in protective outcomes? As humanitarians are able to more satisfactorily manage such risks, we will be better placed to pursue such negotiations.


Kiran Kothari heads Save the Children’s Civil Military Relations and Access Unit where he has worked on relations with armed actors and children in conflict since 2017.

Lauren Meredith is a Programme Officer and a researcher for Save the Children’s Civil Military Relations and Access Unit.

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