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Your identity is impacting the way you negotiate. Find out how experienced humanitarian professionals cope with it

By November 4, 2021December 7th, 2021All Stories, Thematic projects
Neelum valley, Chamata. Discussion around the relief distribution list.  Photo: ICRC/BARRY, Jessica

Have you ever asked yourself what influence your identity has on a negotiation? How about the identity of your counterpart? 

Negotiating access to a prison, traveling safely through a conflict zone, or delivering assistance in a refugee camp is only possible if your counterpart trusts you. But how do you reach that level of trust so that an armed guard lets you speak with detainees, or cross the frontline to assist the wounded of their enemy? 

To support those in need, humanitarian professionals need to build a relationship with their counterpart, and part of creating that relationship is about appearing legitimate in the counterpart’s eyes.

“The most important skill a negotiator needs to have is to be able to understand the sources of legitimacy in a particular context and adapt one’s personal profile as much as possible to that context.”
CCHN Field Manual on Frontline Humanitarian Negotiation, p. 92

A humanitarian organization’s good reputation, being competent in a certain domain, or adapting easily are all useful strategies to increase a humanitarian negotiator’s legitimacy. They can also use their network of connections, or their personal features — such as physical appearance, gender, religion, personality, language, or nationality. 

It is around this last aspect that the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) has conducted research and interviewed over 20 frontline humanitarian negotiators to better understand how their identity and personality influence the relationship with their counterpart and, ultimately, the result of their negotiation.

In this series, you will get an insider’s view into how humanitarian negotiators navigate their own identity in the field and encounter topics such as: 

  • Negotiating with female counterparts,  
  • The weight of colonial baggage,  
  • The importance of speaking the local language,  
  • The impact of gender on negotiations,  
  • … and much more. 

We will release a new “chapter” each week. As the testimonies become available, the respective button will turn purple. Stay tuned to discover more!

APPEARANCE

* All names have been changed to respect the anonymity of the interviews. 

Sara
International staff, Greece

Up to today, I can still remember how part of my identity made some negotiations easier. If I could, I always opted to go to the Middle East, because I associate myself more easily with it, even though I’m not an Arabic speaker. I can disappear within the crowd without them noticing I’m a foreigner. 

Read more

In many contexts, this made my life very easy, especially in Iraq. I came from the region, I was Greek Orthodox, so they could place me and understand me. They told me: “We can work with you. We don’t understand all these others who say they are atheist.” Even my hair color had an impact, because they could associate it with something, they didn’t feel I was a threat. There was a mutual feeling of: “I know you have to do your work, but I also have to do mine, so let’s find a compromise.” 

“I can disappear within the crowd without them noticing I’m a foreigner.”

Robert
International staff, Asian origins

I worked in Myanmar before the coup, when it was not a democracy yet but still a military regime. Under these circumstances, the fact that I am Asian was really an advantage. I was told very directly by my counterpart in the Myanmar Red Cross Society: “Since we have you here now, we know we’re going to understand each other.”

Read more

Myanmar is deeply Buddhist, just like 90% of my country’s population, but we never talked about religion. It was mostly about personality and the physical appearance. It was not white faces only, like in most organisations. When dealing with the Military and the government, the Head of Delegation used to take me with him everywhere, to show that we were not there to inflict them with white Western principles. 

White people don’t know that they have this natural bias towards other white people. In Asia it’s the same thing basically.   

When I say that I’m French, people don’t really believe me. Then when they realize that I understand the Western culture and speak French, they call me a banana. That’s what racism looks like in the humanitarian sector. 

“When they realize that I understand the Western culture and speak French, they call me a banana.”

Anika
International staff, New Zealand

My age has probably been one of the things that has affected my negotiations the most. I realize I have been compensating for my age, so introducing myself I would say: “I come from the Country Office, I am part of the management team, I have spent the last 6 years in the Middle East”. I say this to try and send a message that I understand the geopolitics and so that they know that I can’t be in my 20s. Then I’ve probably tried to overcompensate a little bit with toughness, but this is emotional and reactive, more than a conscious thing.  

 

“I’ve probably tried to overcompensate a little bit with toughness.”

If you are interested in participating in this project through an interview (open to all) or by becoming part of the Working Group on Legitimacy, Diversity, and Gender in Humanitarian Negotiations (reserved only for CCHN community members), feel free to reach out to:

Eugenia Lacalle | CCHN Operations Associate
[email protected].

➡️ Not a member yet? Attend one of our workshops and become part of the CCHN community.

The CCHN’s “Peer Workshops” provide a safe space for sharing negotiation experiences, acquiring new skills and learning from other practitioners. The CCHN organizes several workshops every month, both in person and online, entirely free of charge. All the practitioners who complete the workshop become part of the CCHN Community of Practice, a group of professionals who share a passion for humanitarian negotiation and support each other through all kinds of negotiation challenges.

Apply now for our upcoming workshops!

NATIONALITY

* All names have been changed to respect the anonymity of the interviews. 

Alina
International staff, Swiss

Once, in Iraq, we were dealing with Yazidis regarding the issue of mass graves. I never mentioned my actual origins because a lot of foreign fighters are from there, but I was obviously non-Arab and non-Muslim.

Read more

Being non-Muslim was a positive thing; among the many ethnic and religious stigmas, I was perceived as neutral and independent. However, being a foreigner, you are not taken seriously, and it takes a lot of time to build the trust. You get the message: “You can never understand what happened before because you weren’t here.” 

“You can never understand what happened before because you weren’t here.”

Andrea
International staff

Some colleagues come and say: “It would be better if you said this to him. We can’t have this conversation but, because you’re international, you can.” Male colleagues would be the ones looked at and spoken to, but this pales in comparison to this national-international dynamic and these power relations.

Read more

Female Bangladeshi colleagues have been told in front of me in Bangla by local government officials: “You should be more amenable with me, because she [referring to me] will be leaving, but you are stuck here with me.”

“You should be more amenable with me, because she will be leaving, but you are stuck here with me.”

Dalia
Local staff

When I know my gender is going to be a hindrance, I make sure to wear a lot of visibility of the organization I belong to as a source of legitimacy. I try to look a little older, I carry myself and speak in a certain way, I deepen my voice.

Read more

I am very careful about the way I address people and I use words that are used by older people, that are very traditional. I try to blend into the culture more and not stand out as a millennial woman who’s speaking English around them.  

It’s challenging to be someone who is a local but is formed academically and ideologically by the West. It’s very difficult to find a balance between the two that can work in my context.

 

“It’s challenging to be someone who is a local but is formed academically and ideologically by the West.”

Sofia
International staff, German

I adapt a lot. I’m German, so we are used to speaking more directly. When we want something from someone, we just go and ask for it. Here, you have a long conversation before, talking about family, news… An then you ask your actual question. I learned here that you don’t just approach the person with your request.

Read more

Also, Germans are perceived as being on time, working a lot and being friendly to Syrian refugees. Everyone knows Angela Merkel. So saying I’m from Germany helps, it’s a starting point of trust. They like Germans in general. They don’t ask for my religion, they assume I’m Christian.

“Everyone knows Angela Merkel. So saying I’m from Germany helps, it’s a starting point of trust.”

Graham
International staff, British

In Africa, whilst working in a UN Mission, I was part of three-man team whose task was to persuade a non-state armed group commander to stop fighting and join the political process. At first the organization wanted to send three African officers, because they thought they would be better able to talk to him.

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But he said: “I don’t want Africans, I want Westerners.” So we were sent, two Brits and a German. We did 5 trips to the field over a month, and although we didn’t ultimately achieve what we sought, we made a lot of progress in advancing the dialogue.

“I don’t want Africans, I want Westerners.”

Emma
International staff, British

I have been working in British post-colonial countries, and, surprisingly, it didn’t affect as much as I expected. I’m even surprised at how little. Maybe it is more residual in some countries than others.

Read more

For instance, in Palestine, being an Arabic speaker helped mitigate a lot of that, because they understand that you respect them if you speak their language. But it is true that this topic would systematically come up, and they would love to engage on it. The conversation could have gone anywhere depending on how I took it. My reaction would be to be apologetic, and say sorry for what my parents did. It all goes back to personality and how we [the negotiators] engage with the interlocutor.

There is a colonial legacy, but people remember the most recent one. Interestingly, South Sudan had fond memories of the Brits, and resented the Arab colonialism, which is the more recent one. If you think about the Ottoman occupation of the Middle East, when there also were terrible violations, they are beyond that because the most recent colonialists were the French, the Brits and the Americans. It is interesting how memory and politics shape everything.

“There is a colonial legacy, but people only remember the most recent one.”

Angie
International staff

In Bangladesh, there is this unspoken cultural protocol. You go meet your counterpart and you get turned away at first. So you leave but then you come back, because it’s what it’s expected.

Read more

The negotiation culture is also quite indirect. There is a certain maneuvering of talking about something without talking about it directly. My positive negotiations started with a lot of personal relationship-building. The first meeting, we didn’t even talk about what I wanted, but we had tea and talked about personal stuff. Then I found out I could go to him with requests, and it wasn’t an extensive negotiation every time.   

There are a lot of unspoken rules you are expected to adhere to. Sometimes it’s not even clear to our local colleagues either. Personality is also extremely important: it’s all very individual, very circumstantial. Some counterparts just hate humanitarians, some love us. It just varies so extremely from one case to the other. 

“My positive negotiations started with a lot of personal relationship-building.”

If you are interested in participating in this project through an interview (open to all) or by becoming part of the Working Group on Legitimacy, Diversity, and Gender in Humanitarian Negotiations (reserved only for CCHN community members), feel free to reach out to:

Eugenia Lacalle | CCHN Operations Associate
[email protected].

➡️ Not a member yet? Attend one of our workshops and become part of the CCHN community.

The CCHN’s “Peer Workshops” provide a safe space for sharing negotiation experiences, acquiring new skills and learning from other practitioners. The CCHN organizes several workshops every month, both in person and online, entirely free of charge. All the practitioners who complete the workshop become part of the CCHN Community of Practice, a group of professionals who share a passion for humanitarian negotiation and support each other through all kinds of negotiation challenges.

Apply now for our upcoming workshops!

GENDER

* All names have been changed to respect the anonymity of the interviews. 

Nicole
International staff, New Zealand

Even negotiating with men, my gender would be a distinct advantage, more so with military or security actors. It automatically deescalates the situation; there is not so much ego, bravado and chauvinism in the room.

Read more

It pains me to say this, but we can play on misogyny, sexism, and flirt. You can let them joke about how many goats you are worth and other things that become icebreakers. If we are in a joint negotiation, I would let male colleagues use me as an icebreaker. 

It just opens ways to keep things calm, particularly in the case of military actors. I haven’t really reflected about if it works equally with civilian male counterparts.

“It pains me to say this, but we can play on misogyny, sexism, and flirt.”

Lucie
International staff

I have negotiated in almost every context: Europe, Afghanistan, Darfur, Central America, the Sahel…

Read more

Being a woman has never been an inhibiting factor. I have never found anyone so reluctant to engage with me because I’m a woman, not even in conservative settings.

Once, I spoke to an Afghan leader of a military group. They guy didn’t want to look at me, so I had to sit with my back facing him. But it was a very “good” conversation. He took me very seriously. We had a substantive discussion, he was respectful.

“Being a woman has never been an inhibiting factor.”

Isabel
International staff

My gender and being young-looking are key factors in the cultural context in Bangladesh. They think: “What possible experience could she have?” Plus, I have a baby face, so regardless of my experience I have that against me. 

Read more

I go in being hyper aware of this. I am definitely changing my personality, trying to be more polite and culturally sensitive. Being aware of how much is going against me, as opposed to against my male colleagues.  

There are so many patriarchal norms here that are so ingrained. It’s an issue of credibility. I generally feel that being a woman here is more of a disadvantage. I have gone to negotiations with my supervisor, who is older but still female. And the reaction she gets, it is the same kind I get, where they want to put you in your place: “How old are you, you look too young. Are you married? Do you have kids? What are you doing here if you have kids?”  

I remember once that I went to negotiate access to the camps during Covid, to open our facility to do minimum services. The local authority immediately asked where my male colleague was. Male managers get away with not having to maneuver like I do. They have an added credibility automatically by being older and male. However, knowing how Bangladeshi women are treated, they have it harder than me. Being international, European in particular, helps. 

In some scenarios, I have been able to negotiate services better by having a softer approach and being more polite, being more hyper aware of the cultural context, not getting impatient or easily frustrated. But these are the exceptions to the rule. I’m married, so I try to play the young mother card to build more trust. Somehow being married gives you a little more respect, playing up to being a family woman, a “good” woman. 

“What are you doing here if you have kids?”

Adama
Local staff

In Burkina Faso, there are many men working in the context of humanitarian response, and less and less women. Generally, men are taking difficult contexts and women are left behind. But in many contexts, there are certain parts where women can have added value.

Read more

For instance, a big part of the beneficiaries are women and children and, because of local practices, it is difficult to get information from them if you are a man. There is no gender balance, when comparing the high number of women among beneficiaries and the small number among humanitarian workers. 

We lose a lot of information because of this lack of diversity. Humanitarian actors have to focus on the style of communication. When people talk about Africa, they describe a difficult context to work in, so managers don’t want to send women here. There is a lack of knowledge about the history; in certain tribes, women are described as legends in the history of their cities. But these stories of women taking the leadership are unknown. 

“In certain tribes, women are described as legends in the history of their cities.”

Olivia
International staff

It’s there that I find the power. When people don’t take you so seriously, they think it will be easy. Then when you start to engage in the conversation, they are surprised. At first they think: “She’s not experienced, she’s not strong…” and they release their defenses, so it’s easier to reach them. 

Read more

In Iraq, they told me directly that at first they had thought: “They are sending a woman? They are not taking this seriously.” Then they told me: “You are a strong woman, we like that, we respect that.”

“They are sending a woman? They are not taking this seriously.”

Hilary
International staff

We were meeting with a religious leader that denied my existence. He greeted my male colleague, and it was like I wasn’t there. I realized it was my time to stay quiet, even though I was leading the visit.

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However, my colleague didn’t really know what we could and couldn’t do, he didn’t have the necessary information. So, I tried to make my voice heard and, once the counterpart realized I had the answers, he actually started listening to me and interacting with me. At first, he would look at the floor, but towards the end he even called me by my name while looking at me!  

This team combination was also useful when visiting prison inmates. They started telling me about private and more intimate stuff, while to my colleague they were asking requests like: “Can you fix my shower?” Being both, it was great. If I had gone alone, they wouldn’t have talked to me. If he had gone alone, we would have missed the more private stuff, which is extremely important for one of the organization’s main missions.

 

“They started telling me about private and more intimate stuff, while to my colleague they were asking requests like: ‘Can you fix my shower?'”

Taylor
International staff

I keep my sexual orientation to myself because I could get crucified. You need to make sure that your personal life is kept secret, even though I must admit that it’s very stressful.

Read more

When you join the organization and participate in managerial courses, there is no course or training related to diversity, be it regarding females, be it regarding LGBTI+. There is no approach to how to handle this. For me, this is a red line. If you want to be a manager, you need to have this cultural diversity. Before thinking of security measures, I want my line manager not to discriminate or bully me. We are looking at the last picture – negotiation – but are your staff from minority groups feeling safe and comfortable in your organization? No, honestly. I didn’t even come out to my organization out of fear of losing my job.  

My female partner is not recognized by my organization: for you to fill in the papers, you need to have your house, or your bill under the name of both. This is ridiculous because 80% of your staff don’t have this privilege. I’m not going to have an official paper where both our names are written. In third world countries, even male and female that are living together but not married won’t be able to have their names on a same official document. We are far behind. It’s all very white, Western-oriented. It’s regulated by laws that don’t apply to 80% of the world. 

“Before thinking of security measures, I want my line manager not to discriminate or bully me.”

Amalia
International staff

We have been addressed by our organization on this topic when it comes to security, asking if there needs to be different security measures for LGBTI+ people. My colleagues said that, prior to thinking of security for staff, there should be more awareness for staff.

Read more

I’m playing with the role of a female even if I don’t identify as female. Even within my organization, because they are way behind with these topics. I have been misgendered for years.

I identify as a trans male, but I am in an organization that does not yet have all the means to support minorities and make them feel safe. This topic is very sensitive to me. We have a lot of problems with diversity prior to reaching the negotiation stage. These challenges are back in our organization, before even addressing a third party. 

“I keep my sexual orientation to myself because I could get crucified.”

Anaïs
International staff

We had to negotiate with our counterparts at the Government, and it was difficult because no organizations were well perceived at the time. I would spend hours at the Ministry to get to meet them and no one would talk to me, not even take my name. Then once I happened to go there with lipstick, and that got me a meeting within half an hour, with coffee, water… However, if you do this, where do you stop? 

Read more

Turns out the problem came more from being from a humanitarian organization than from being a woman. It depends on these biases that our counterparts may have, which are often instrumentalized and not necessarily true. It was probably helpful that I was a foreign woman – this was true in certain countries in the Middle East. We are considered as some kind of “third sex.” You can do things that local woman can’t do, and also things that local men can’t do. 

For instance, I once had to negotiate in a remote area to distribute sanitary pads, which was very badly perceived. The head of the monitoring and evaluation team didn’t manage to talk to the local recipients of assistance because he was a man. I would wait outside while he was meeting the sheikh, and I talked to the women. As a woman, I could talk to the beneficiaries; as a foreigner, I could also talk to the sheikh. 

“As a woman, I could talk to the beneficiaries; as a foreigner, I could also talk to the sheikh.”

If you are interested in participating in this project through an interview (open to all) or by becoming part of the Working Group on Legitimacy, Diversity, and Gender in Humanitarian Negotiations (reserved only for CCHN community members), feel free to reach out to:

Eugenia Lacalle | CCHN Operations Associate
[email protected].

➡️ Not a member yet? Attend one of our workshops and become part of the CCHN community.

The CCHN’s “Peer Workshops” provide a safe space for sharing negotiation experiences, acquiring new skills and learning from other practitioners. The CCHN organizes several workshops every month, both in person and online, entirely free of charge. All the practitioners who complete the workshop become part of the CCHN Community of Practice, a group of professionals who share a passion for humanitarian negotiation and support each other through all kinds of negotiation challenges.

Apply now for our upcoming workshops!

LANGUAGE

* All names have been changed to respect the anonymity of the interviews. 

Ismael
International staff, Syria

Once, we met with a cross border governor. We didn’t speak his language, so we brought an interpreter, who wasn’t able to transmit the same message we wanted to.

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We did not prepare enough before the meeting. All of us were high level, and we didn’t agree who would speak, so we let the Country Director speak because he was older and more experienced. He didn’t have all the necessary information, so we weren’t clear in our petitions. We should have adapted during the meeting: if we were seeing it wasn’t going well, we shouldn’t have just asked for anything. It was catastrophic – we came out worse off.  

The interpreter was a bit confused, because everybody was asking something from him. We didn’t provide any added value. The next time we went, we printed some materials in the counterpart’s language, saying: “You can check what we are saying on page x.” This really helped us.  

The interpreter was really a liaison officer. He was from the same nationality and spoke the language of the counterpart, but he didn’t have the ideal personality for a negotiator. He was from a rural area, had a background in tourism. He was young, didn’t have the skills, was not trained in negotiation. We just expected him to interpret, not to negotiate, so we didn’t share with him a lot of information or background on the subject matter.

“It was catastrophic, we came out worse off.”

Martina
Local staff, Indonesia

There are many delegates that can speak Indonesian. However, we still have different cultures, gestures, and ways of thinking. Most Indonesians can understand some English; they can catch some words. So, once, I was with this French delegate, and he said in English: “But that’s bullshit.

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They understood that and it was very harsh. Even if you speak Indonesian, that doesn’t mean you will communicate smoothly. People don’t know the weight of the meaning of words. 

I could see that the military men were a bit offended by that, so I tried to de-escalate. At one point, the military guy asked me, because he thought I was taking the side of my delegate: “Why are you defending him? Are you Indonesian or what? How much are you getting paid?” I was perceived as a traitor to my country. 

Similarly, at one other moment in my career, I worked with a delegate from Switzerland. Even though she knows Indonesian, she is very “Swiss”. She is always on time and very rigid. While, in Indonesia, especially after a disaster, you cannot expect people to be always on time. People are too relaxed in the area, and it is not out of disrespect. You have to consider whether it is useful for you to talk about how late they are.

“I was perceived as a traitor to my country.”

Olive
International staff, New Zealand

There is a big difference between the military and the civilian administration.  From my experience, military actors are normally much easier to work with, in countries like Yemen and Iraq. A lot of them had worked with peacekeeping missions and had been trained by coalition forces.

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There is quite often a level of understanding of the humanitarian mandate and of working with humanitarians; they understand the basic concepts around humanitarian principles.

There are opportunities to connect on practical levels also. They may want to practice or show their English or want to talk about their time in America, which can be a particular reason to involve international staff profiles.

If they are managing a humanitarian response, they are at the front, so they are often more empathetic because they see what civilians are going through. When the civilian administration came in later, they only cared (it appeared for the most part) about paperwork and maintaining their position, especially when there is a vacuum of power.

“[Military administrations] are often more empathetic because they see what civilians are going through.”

Amina
Local staff, Jordanian

The first time I met with a female counterpart, it was with someone from the Ministry of Health. I showed her respect because she was a respectful lady. And we built a good relationship, so she said she wanted to deal with me from then onwards. My Program Coordinator didn’t like that.

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So, she went herself to negotiate with her about GBV, to test how she felt about this issue. The reaction was totally different. Because the Program Coordinator wasn’t aware about the interlocutor’s religion and what she thought about this issue: they would not grant access for non-married ladies to a gynecologist, nor allow abortion or distribution of pills…

The counterpart was Christian and when she heard the word “abortion”, she got mad. This is not the topic we should have negotiated with them. The Program Coordinator didn’t “read” the lady, she didn’t have a relationship with her. On the other hand, if you are from the country, they will talk to you as a national, not as representing an international NGO. As a person from the same country, I could have had a side talk with this lady.  

You need to know not only the language, but also the words to use: you need to speak the counterpart’s language on certain topics. If you know she’s conservative, you present the topic conservatively. And this lady later helped me when I wanted something from the Ministry of Health; she talked to the director about me.

“You need to know not only the language, but also the words to use: you need to speak the counterpart’s language on certain topics.”

If you are interested in participating in this project through an interview (open to all) or by becoming part of the Working Group on Legitimacy, Diversity, and Gender in Humanitarian Negotiations (reserved only for CCHN community members), feel free to reach out to:

Eugenia Lacalle | CCHN Operations Associate
[email protected].

➡️ Not a member yet? Attend one of our workshops and become part of the CCHN community.

The CCHN’s “Peer Workshops” provide a safe space for sharing negotiation experiences, acquiring new skills and learning from other practitioners. The CCHN organizes several workshops every month, both in person and online, entirely free of charge. All the practitioners who complete the workshop become part of the CCHN Community of Practice, a group of professionals who share a passion for humanitarian negotiation and support each other through all kinds of negotiation challenges.

Apply now for our upcoming workshops!

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