Issue 19 - Article 2

The Strategic Framework and Principled Common Programming: a challenge to humanitarian assistance

June 3, 2003
Penny Harrison
6 min read

The protracted conflict in Afghanistan has created patterns of assistance marked by a confusing interplay of international and national actors. The Strategic Framework (SF) and Principled Common Programming (PCP) were devised in part in response to pressure from donors, who believed that there was a lack of coordination and coherent planning in aid delivery in Afghanistan. By openly questioning their sustained financial support for humanitarian assistance, donors encouraged a structural change in the UN’s political and humanitarian arms. Afghanistan, like Somalia, Burma, Chechnya and Sudan, is an example of what can happen when attempts are made to address the dual mandates of the UN – political objectives and responding to humanitarian needs – in complex crises.

The Strategic Framework, according to the UN, is an umbrella under which a strategy incorporating political, aid and human-rights dimensions can be developed. This starting-position is entirely apt for the UN system – but the inclusion of the political dimension is precisely what humanitarian assistance cannot accept. Initially, the Strategic Framework was presented as a mechanism of UN reform. However, with the support of donors the concept was endorsed for the broader ‘assistance community’ operating in Afghanistan. The Strategic Framework is predicated on the assumption that all the actors should speak with one voice, and adopt a coherent approach in which peace and assistance strategies are linked. But the assumption that a unitary and principled approach is possible, required or desirable among actors with very different mandates, charters and modes of operation raises some fundamental dilemmas.


What is at stake? In general, the UN system should act as a filter between the policies of member governments and their efforts to find political solutions to conflicts on the one hand, and the impartial delivery of humanitarian assistance on the other. Yet the Strategic Framework and PCP offer precisely the converse. The perception that humanitarian assistance can be used explicitly as a tool of peacebuilding or conflict management ignores the principle of impartial action – arguably the most fundamental principle we have.

Are notions of independent and impartial action redundant, or accepted as temporarily and conveniently redefined in a gallant act of compromise for the sake of a higher concept of peace? Have we forgotten that international humanitarian law establishes the bases under which states and belligerents are expected to allow NGOs to assist people during an internal conflict, and to do so independently and impartially?

One could argue that the UN sees the SF and PCP structures as filling the void left by the absence of a legitimate and internationally recognised government. This may be entirely appropriate for the UN, but it is not appropriate for humanitarian agencies. The result is that Afghanistan has become one of the testing grounds for an ‘accepted’ logic which explicitly links political and humanitarian objectives.

What is principled in an approach that supports the reduction of protection to a negligible level, and that pays ‘compensation’ to the authorities for the construction of IDP camps and for security protection? We can and should aim to work together operationally, but not under the pretence of a defined ‘international community’. We must be transparent about our negotiations and engagements with the authority structures, and respond to acute needs which require alleviation.

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If humanitarian action is to be effective, it is imperative that clear distinctions are drawn between the policies and motivations of the UN and donor governments on the one hand, and NGOs and the ICRC/IFRC on the other. It is clear that, with the UN assuming a dual role as both humanitarian agency and political negotiator, the demarcation of the roles of other actors in the field is confused. For some agencies, financial dependence on donor governments makes questioning these processes difficult. But is this funding worth the price if the trade-off is the reduction of humanitarian action to the lowest common denominator?

From my perspective, the overall consequences for agencies outside the UN appear four-fold. First, the SF and PCP challenge the very basis of impartial and independent humanitarian action in complex crises like Afghanistan; second, they have a direct operational implication in terms of needs-driven response; third, they challenge the relationship between NGOs and the authorities; and four, they raise the question of potential security risks. The UN’s non-recognition of the Taliban and perceived links between the UN and US policy pose real problems for other organisations working in Afghanistan.

In addition, establishing a model of coordination among a diverse range of actors should be questioned. To state, as the PCP does, that assistance partners ‘agree to speak with one voice on issues of principle’ and ‘agree on collective conditions for engagement and disengagement when human rights are violated and human distress increased’ is laudable, but impossible to implement in practice. We all have varying modes of engagement – some strictly humanitarian in nature, others developmentalist, others with a solidarity perspective. And then there is the UN, and the international foreign-policy concerns of donor governments. There will never be consensus between the UN, national and international NGOs on contentious issues, for example negotiating freedom of movement within the country. The capacity of agencies to speak out and act independently cannot be compromised.

What of needs?

If agencies agree that principles matter and responsive action to needs is the aim, then what is the fate of humanitarian action and the people who are targeted for support under this approach? There appears to be an innate contradiction in the formulated objectives which apply a develop-mental approach on relief. Where does alleviating suffering and life-saving fit in this approach when the emphasis is on ‘empowering’ Afghan society? How do the Strategic Framework and the PCP tackle questions like the conditions for IDPs and their protection, the acute need for response to drought, and ensuring that refugee return is voluntary and that refugees are protected? Perhaps before creating an archetype for a form of ‘consensual’ action, all agencies should review what these processes really represent. Are these mechanisms going to improve our capacity to be present and to effectively address needs? I would say that this is not the case.

The sanctity of impartiality?

Neutrality, impartiality and independence of action must be safeguarded if the operating space for humanitarian action in conflicts and complex crises is to be maintained. In terms of their practical application, these notions are forgotten in the peace agenda, and opportunities are missed for operational negotiation for greater access to reach vulnerable populations. Fundamentally, these mechanisms do not improve the humanitarian situation for Afghan people, who are in need of life-saving assistance and protection.

Penny Harrison is Head of Mission for MSF-Holland in Tajikistan. She worked for MSF in Pakistan/Afghanistan during 2000. Website: www.


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