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New Research Sheds Light on Challenges and Dilemmas of Frontline Negotiations in Yemen

Daily life in Saada city | Crossroad of Saada city. (Photo Credit: Agnes Varraine-Leca/MSF)

The international humanitarian operation in Yemen was the largest of 2019 and the UN’s biggest financial appeal ever. But the response has faced considerable challenges that have required extensive negotiations with multiple parties at multiple levels. CCHN recently supported a listening tour to identify the key dynamics, challenges, and dilemmas associated with humanitarian negotiations in Yemen. This research was used to support peer learning and a two-day workshop for frontline negotiators.

Humanitarian agencies reached more than ten million Yemenis each month throughout early 2019, and around 20 million people across the country were regularly accessible to international responders. Questions nevertheless remain around the extent to which the humanitarian response has reached those most in need in the country with the right type of assistance. And agencies continue to face a range of serious challenges and dilemmas related to negotiating humanitarian access and the protection of civilians.

I was asked by CCHN in mid-2019 to support their work on Yemen to address some of these issues. I began by producing a background paper on the key dynamics, challenges, and dilemmas facing frontline negotiators. This was based on a listening tour (a series of interviews) as well as desk research. We used this research to design a ‘CCHN Specialised Session’ on 11-12 September 2019 to support negotiators working in and on Yemen, which I jointly facilitated with other CCHN staff and community members.

The negotiating environment

Yemen is perhaps best described as a series of overlapping conflicts rather than a single war. The conflict dynamics have strong international and regional elements whilst also being highly localised. And violence is driven by both recent as well as long-standing historical grievances. My research found that the negotiation experiences were substantially different between agencies operating in different governorates and between those working in different sectors. I attempted in my background paper to highlight these similarities as well as the differences and was pleased to see participants in the Specialised Session working together to create a shared analysis of frontline negotiations in Yemen, rather than focusing only on their unique experiences.

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The shared experience of frontline negotiators suggested that bureaucratic obstacles were generally perceived to be the most significant challenge. These were often seen as a deliberate tool by authorities to obstruct assistance. But internal security restrictions were also widely seen as disproportionate to actual risks, imposing another hurdle for humanitarian operations and negotiations.

The complexity of the crisis was also seen as a major challenge, including the proliferation of armed actors as well as the complexity of the context itself. My research also suggests that the identities and interests of negotiation counterparts were often poorly understood by humanitarians, undermining their negotiation efforts.

Beyond complexity, many negotiation counterparts were also fragmented, both horizontally (between political and military factions) and vertically (between leaders and soldiers). These challenges presented enormous difficulties for frontline negotiators seeking commitments around humanitarian norms. A further challenge came from concerted efforts by authorities to undermine coordination structures and play agencies off against one another – which they frequently succeeded in doing.

My research also identified a number of dilemmas faced by agencies. First, the UN-led political process aimed at resolving the conflict was a potential asset through which humanitarians could press for concessions around humanitarian access and the protection of civilians. But many negotiators also saw it as a liability that compromised the perceived neutrality of humanitarians and ultimately placed their operations at risk.

And against the scale of needs, funding was a significant dilemma for many agencies in need of greater resources but wary of accepting contributions from parties to the conflict for fear of losing their independence (or of being perceived to have done so).

Strengthening peer support

We began the Specialised Session by presenting my research and handing it off to participants to reject, elaborate, or refine. We ended up with an analysis of the main dynamics, challenges, and dilemmas that was owned and reflective of the experiences of a broad range of frontline negotiators. From this shared analysis we identified key topics for each of the workshop sessions and were able to tailor the content to the priorities of participants.

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Whilst the Specialised Session was only the start of CCHN’s engagement in Yemen and the beginning of structured peer support, I was encouraged to see the skill and commitment to resolving the challenges to negotiating in Yemen.

CCHN will continue to use this analysis to tailor its support for frontline negotiators in Yemen throughout 2020.

For CCHN community members, the full version of Ashley Clement’s backgrounder on Yemen can be accessed on CCHN Connect.

Read the backgrounder
About the Author

Ashley Jonathan Clements

Researcher and Consultant

Dr Ashley Jonathan Clements is a consultant and researcher, currently based in Sri Lanka. He has spent over fifteen years working in the humanitarian sector with the UN and NGOs. Ash continues to research and support frontline negotiations and conducts negotiation training for a range of audiences. His book Humanitarian Negotiations with Armed Groups will be released in early 2020.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of CCHN nor any of its Strategic Partners.