The time of the humanitarian diplomat

Image: CDC Global Health. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Many humanitarians cringe at the thought of being categorised as diplomats. After all, isn’t being a diplomat something political that humanitarians are not supposed to be?  Whereas some humanitarian workers remain skeptical or at least prudent, others believe there is an intrinsic added value in seeing their work through the lens of humanitarian diplomatic thinking and practices.

Humanitarian diplomacy can be described, in short, as advancing humanitarian interests and aims by diplomatic means. A commonly used definition is that of the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC): persuading decision makers and opinion leaders to act, at all times, in the interests of vulnerable people, and with full respect for fundamental humanitarian principles. These humanitarian principles, namely humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence, form a common ideological framework for many international humanitarians, particularly for those working in a traditional, sometimes referred to as Dunantist (after the Red Cross founder Henry Dunant), paradigm.

Given that diplomacy is most commonly understood as a state-initiated activity, it is seen as inherently political. Indeed, state diplomacies represent a wide variety of competing national, security, economic and foreign policy interests, among others. How, then, does humanitarianism fit in? First of all, diplomacy is a plural set of experiences that goes beyond the state dimension. The phenomenon of diplomacy has significantly expanded in recent history concomitantly with other trends, such as globalisation, multilateralism and technological advancement. State-related diplomacy is not able to tackle all of today’s multifaceted issues – such as climate change, refugee flows or Covid-19. Given this current need for a multidimensional and plural understanding of diplomacy, it could be helpful to trace the definition of diplomacy back to its original meaning: representing one polity to another polity.

Humanitarian actors are among such polities. In a world of disasters, emergencies and crises, humanitarianism is not a given, but exists in a context. Within its context, humanitarianism’s main purpose is to regenerate its claims and aims, which traditionally are alleviating unnecessary human suffering and safeguarding bare life. The humanitarian polity stands against other polities, such as those that are driving armed conflicts, which are estimated to create about 80 percent of the world’s humanitarian needs.

Humanitarians negotiate access to aid at various levels. Among other humanitarian activities they try to obtain ceasefires and to build humanitarian corridors; they lobby for respect of international humanitarian laws and pursue actions that protect civilians. By doing so, they simultaneously represent the humanitarian polity, which means, in practice, that they create and engage in humanitarian diplomacy. These humanitarian diplomatic engagements occur at all levels and they are inherently interconnected: frontline negotiations play a role in local dynamics which affect high-level humanitarian diplomatic engagement, which then traces back to and reflects operational field interventions.

At the core of all this are the practitioners themselves, the humanitarian diplomats. Whereas several reluctantly adhere to the label or recognise it as a professional category, their opinion might not matter in the action itself: at times other stakeholders, such as national governments and armed groups, force humanitarians to engage in diplomacy in a traditional manner in order to fulfil humanitarian operational aims. Given that humanitarians are expected to represent the humanitarian polity as the main reason for their existence, and they are forced to use traditional diplomatic means such as dialogue, negotiation and compromise, it is important to recognise more explicitly the role of the humanitarian diplomat.

Humanitarian diplomacy aligns in particular with the professionalisation of the international humanitarian field against other forms of humanitarianism that are more directly linked to grassroots initiatives and volunteering (although negotiations are always a component of humanitarian work in these areas too). International humanitarianism is an increasingly structured field with educational paths and professional careers, guidelines and manuals, and standard operating procedures. Humanitarian diplomacy goes in parallel with and is often acknowledged in humanitarian organisations’ strategies and policies. Therefore, knowing how to use diplomatic approaches is an essential professional skill for contemporary humanitarians. However, at its current stage humanitarian diplomacy and its practices remain under-explored in terms of transferrable skills and they lack related knowledge-management. Unlocking this potential may translate into increased organisational efficiency and effectiveness, something that no humanitarian organisation can afford not to tap into.

Clearly, seeing humanitarians as diplomats rather than advocates, promoters or supporters changes the tactics and perspectives necessary in current operational contexts. Ongoing humanitarian emergencies such as those in Syria or Yemen are prolonged and complex. Understanding such situations, with all their inherent political dimensions, implies recognising the situated, interconnected and multilayered nature of conflict and crisis. Humanitarian diplomacy can be seen as a crucial component of such political scenarios wherein humanitarians as diplomats might be well positioned for meaningful interventions. As one of several political actors in a context of conflict, regional competition and social disruption, the humanitarian diplomat is in direct connection with the causes behind humanitarian needs and the politics of life and death.

To be sure, humanitarians have long engaged in practices of diplomacy but often without adopting an open, public approach, or even without properly understanding in what ways they are doing diplomatic work. Donor relations, resource mobilisation, gaining political support, securing stakeholder partnerships and inter-organisational collaboration are, in their essence, diplomacy. Considering the nature of today’s humanitarian crises, many humanitarians aim for recognised acknowledgement and, relatedly, continuous development of diplomatic skills. Without this, some believe there is a risk that they may be left navigating between irrelevancy and non-transparency. For instance, clearly acknowledging the diplomatic (and thus political) dimension of humanitarian work contributes to create more space for accountability and responsibility (especially for the consequences of humanitarian interventions).

With different actors in the humanitarian arena operating in prominent positions, such as tech-giants and the military, “traditional” humanitarians find that riding the humanitarian wave is nowadays crowded. Whereas these other actors are able to engage in a wide range of diplomacies, such as military diplomacy and business diplomacy, humanitarian diplomacy remains a domain that international humanitarians should learn to maneuver with efficiency and transparency.