International Humanitarian NGOs and State Relations: Politics, Principles and Identity, 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

International Humanitarian NGOs and State Relations

Politics, Principles and Identity, 1st Edition

By Andrew J. Cunningham


210 pages | 1 B/W Illus.

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International Humanitarian NGOs and State Relations: Politics, Principles and Identity examines the often discordant relationship between states and international non-governmental organisations working in the humanitarian sector. INGOs aiming to provide assistance to populations suffering from the consequences of conflicts and other human-made disasters work in the midst of very politically sensitive local dynamics. The involvement of these non-political international actors can be seen as a threat to states that see civil war as a state of exception where it is the government’s prerogative to act outside ‘normal’ legal or moral boundaries. Drawing on first-hand experience of humanitarian operations in contexts of civil war, this book explores how the relationship works in practice and how often clashing priorities can be mediated.

Using case studies of civil conflicts in Sri Lanka, Darfur, Ethiopia and Chechnya, this practice-based book brings together key issues of politics, principles and identity to build a ‘negotiation structure’ for analysing and understanding the relationship. The book goes on to outline a research and policy development agenda for INGOs to better adapt politically to working with states.

International Humanitarian NGOs and State Relations will be a key resource for professionals and policy makers working within international humanitarian and development operations, as well as for academics and students within humanitarian and development studies who want to understand the relationship between states and humanitarian and multi-mandate organisations.


"The political negotiations conducted by international human organisations to gain access to civil war victims has long taxed humanitarians and governing authorities. This illuminating account draws upon archives and other original sources to explore the clashes during civil wars between sovereign authorities in Sri Lanka, Russia, Ethiopia and Sudan and universalist organisations such as Médecins sans Frontières. Andrew Cunningham's approach demonstrates the complexity of negotiating structures and discordant discourses, in a book of many insights containing valuable lessons for humanitarians." Michael Pugh, Professor Emeritus in Peace and Conflict, University of Bradford, UK

"Cunningham’s book tackles a gaping fissure in today’s humanitarian practice – the seemingly irreconcilable clash between the moral actions of the aid agency and the exercise of political power by the state. Given current trends in the establishment of state sovereignty, the mistaken humanitarian emphasis on ‘state-avoiding’ approaches will only further doom their access to people in crisis. Put simply, Cunningham’s analysis of the state-INGO relationship makes not for interesting research; it should become required reading." Marc DuBois, Independent Humanitarian Consultant, former Executive Director MSF-UK

"Amidst increasing efforts by states to limit the actions of INGOs operating within their borders, Cunningham provides much-needed insight into the narratives, rules, norms and discourses that shape NGO-state relationships. He masterfully highlights the complex political realities faced by both humanitarian NGOs and the states in which they work, making this a must-read for policymakers, donors, NGO workers, and anyone interested in understanding when and why humanitarian interventions succeed or fail." Jennifer N. Brass, School of Public & Environmental Affairs, Indiana University, USA

"How states and international humanitarian actors relate to each other matters because when the relationship breaks down people in need don’t receive lifesaving assistance. This book is crucial reading for researchers and practitioners to understand how that happens and what could be done to build more constructive partnerships better able to assist and protect people in times of crisis." Paul Harvey, Partner, Humanitarian Outcomes, UK

"Andrew Cunningham’s carefully-researched book offers important insights, evidence and a framework that bridges academia and operational realities in the complex field of international humanitarian and development action, poverty reduction and social change in fragile states. His work offers a valuable contribution to the sector at a pivotal time in history." Abby Maxman, CEO and President, Oxfam America, USA

"This is a thought provoking, empirically informed and very rich analysis of the complex and often fraught relationship between humanitarian NGOs and states in times of humanitarian crises. Written by someone with impeccable credentials for exploring that relationship in detail, it dissects the politics and political nature of humanitarian crises in eye-opening fashion." Mats Berdal, Department of War Studies, King’s College London, UK

"This book by Andrew Cunningham provides a long-awaited and most timely discussion of how humanitarian actors can better relate to the government in crisis areas. Theoretically well-informed and grounded in the author’s vast experience, the book analyses aid-state relations in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Sudan and Russia. The book provides a solid escape from the usual idea of a battle between the high morals of humanitarians and the low politics of state. Rather than providing a simple tool-box for humanitarian diplomacy, the book seeks to support humanitarians (and states for that matter) with nuanced and context-specific understandings of how access can be negotiated.’’ Dorothea Hilhorst, Professor of humanitarian aid and reconstruction, International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University, The Netherlands

"Are good intentions enough? More often than not, humanitarian imperatives clash with state prerogatives rendering the delivery of life-saving assistance more difficult. Cunningham convincingly argues the need for understanding contexts and for meaningful engagement between governmental and the non-governmental actors so that human life is saved and protected in times of crises. Essential reading for leaders, researchers, and aid workers." Unni Karunakara, Yale School of Public Health, and US and International President, Médecins Sans Frontières (2010-2013)

Excerpt of book review in

"Flexibility in humanitarian action is not possible without a better understanding the policies, principles, and identities that shape the relations between international NGOs and the State. Andrew J. Cunningham, an expert and consultant on matters of humanitarian studies offers a book to humanitarian actors for this purpose. Drawing on first-hand experience of humanitarian operations in the contexts of civil war, Andrew J. Cunningham explores how the relationship [between different actors] works in practice and how often clashing priorities can be mediated. Thus, the book is useful to those in the authority or official duty to offer relief. He brings together key issues of politics, principles and identity to build a 'negotiation structure' for analysing and understanding the relationship using case studies of civil conflicts in Sri Lanka, Darfur, Ethiopia and Chechnya. The case studies offer potent outlines to students and researchers of humanitarian action… and the framework and case studies equally provide guidance for INGOs working in disaster management sector." -- Vipul Nakum, AIDMI

Table of Contents

List of Figures

List of Tables




Introduction: States and international humanitarian organisations: Principles, politics, and identity

Chapter One: The relationship of the external in the internal

Chapter Two: The case of Médecins Sans Frontières and the Government of Sri Lanka 2006-2007

Chapter Three: The case of Médecins Sans Frontières and the Government of Sri Lanka 2008-2009

Chapter Four: Fear as discourse: The case of Chechnya

Chapter Five: Law as discourse: The case of Ethiopia

Chapter Six: Expulsion as discourse: The case of Sudan

Chapter Seven: Responses to securitisation

Chapter Eight: Politics, principles, and identity

Conclusion: The Future

About the Author

Andrew J. Cunningham is a humanitarian practitioner and consultant, with a PhD from King’s College London, UK

About the Series

Routledge Humanitarian Studies

The Routledge Humanitarian Studies series in collaboration with the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) takes a comprehensive approach to the growing field of expertise that is humanitarian studies. This field is concerned with humanitarian crises caused by natural disaster, conflict or political instability and deals with the study of how humanitarian crises evolve, how they affect people and their institutions and societies, and the responses they trigger.

We invite book proposals that address, amongst other topics, questions of aid delivery, institutional aspects of service provision, the dynamics of rebel wars, state building after war, the international architecture of peacekeeping, the ways in which ordinary people continue to make a living throughout crises, and the effect of crises on gender relations.

This interdisciplinary series draws on and is relevant to a range of disciplines, including development studies, international relations, international law, anthropology, peace and conflict studies, public health and migration studies.

To submit proposals, please contact the Development Studies Editor, Helena Hurd ([email protected]).

Series Editors:

Alex de Waal, Tufts University, USA

Dorothea Hilhorst, Wageningen University, The Netherlands

Learn more…

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Developing Countries