Author Q&A Session with Andrew Cunningham

Routledge is pleased to share with you our author Q&A session with Andrew Cunningham, author of the published title International Humanitarian NGOs and State Relations. Cunningham is a humanitarian practitioner and consultant. He has 23 years’ experience in the aid sector, including 14 years with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), ten years of which was in the field and four in HQ. Andrew’s specialty is in highly insecure contexts and civil society space in humanitarian crises. Since leaving MSF Andrew has completed his PhD in War Studies at King’s College London, where he is a Research Fellow. Andrew works as a consultant and trainer for humanitarian organizations and is a member of the Board of MSF International.

Andrew Cunningham has twenty-three years’ experience in the humanitarian and development field, beginning with working for the Peace Corps in Burundi 1989-1991 and then in the Rwandan refugee camps in Tanzania between 1994-1996. Following this he spent by fourteen years with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), ten years of which was in the field in a wide variety of contexts and geographical locations. Later he moved to the Amsterdam MSF headquarters to work in the Humanitarian Affairs Department where he collaborated on various projects related to the translation of humanitarian principles into viable humanitarian interventions. Andrew’s specialty in his MSF work was in highly insecure contexts, such as Chechnya, Afghanistan/Pakistan, and Somalia. Since leaving MSF Andrew has completed his PhD in War Studies at King’s College London, researching the relationship between states and international humanitarian organisations in the context of conflict. Andrew also has a BA in History from Keene State College, an MS in Applied Linguistics from Georgia State University, and an MSPH (Environmental Health Sciences) from Tulane School of Public Health. Andrew works as a consultant and trainer for various humanitarian organisations and is a member of the Board of MSF International. He is also a Research Fellow at the Conflict, Security and Development Research Group at the War Studies Department, King's College London.

PhD War Studies King's College London
Areas of Research / Professional Expertise
The relationship between states and humanitarian and development NGOs.
Civil society space in humanitarian contexts.
Humanitarian principles and negotiated access.
Personal Interests
The peace of gardening in an urban context.
About the Book

International Humanitarian NGOs and State Relations: Politics, Principles and Identityexamines 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 audience of this book is varied—academics interested in international politics, state sovereignty, securitisation theory, discourse analysis, and civil society space; practitioners working with humanitarian, multi-mandate, and development organisations; and students studying any of the above. So, the take away is varied as well. This book examines the relationship between states and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) against the background of civil war and political instability. The relationship is established as two sets of norms in tension: The moral as represented and made operational by INGOs and the political as articulated and practised by states. The central take away is that the negotiation between these actors is informed by political considerations and the prerogative of sovereign actors to determine that a state of exception exists, where action outside normal rules may be contemplated. A state will attempt to mitigate against real or perceived threats through a process of securitisation—the designation of friends and enemies. Action must however be argued for and this is done through discourse. Securitised agents—INGOs, have several options to respond to being ‘securitised’, also mediated through discourse.

For humanitarian and development practitioners I hope the framework as described in the book will provide some insight into how their relationships with states develop. But this is not a generic toolkit to be used off the shelf—the audience must actively contribute their own thought and analysis as the framework and case studies are only the impetus for further action. For academics it is hoped that the theoretical framework may be useful in better understanding the attitudes of states as they relate to international civil society actors working on their territories. As well, the book pushes the envelope on how discourse can be understood within the securitisation approach. Finally, there will be interest by those studying any of the four case studies: Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Ethiopia, and Darfur. The Sri Lanka case study examines the 2006 and 2008-2009 periods of the civil war, comparing experiences of those two periods and why the relationship changed over time between humanitarian actors and the government. The Chechnya study looks at fear as discourse, the Ethiopia case examines the law as discourse, and finally, the Sudan example elaborates on expulsion as discourse.

My interest in the theme of this research is derived from my 20 plus years of working with humanitarian and development organisations, including managing field operations and in headquarters. Aid organisations are faced with many challenges working amid conflict, and the difficult relationship with states has become one of the dominant themes over the last decade or two. In my professional work I have dealt with many contexts where the relationship with states was tense and difficult, such as Sudan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Zimbabwe and China, amongst others. These experiences led to the development of a process of reflection on this evolving relationship. This research question then formed the basis for my PhD at the War Studies department at King’s College London.

The next step was to publish my PhD findings as a professional oriented book. It was necessary to widen the research for the purposes of this book, as a broader interest was demanded for the mixed audience of practitioners, academics, and students. The widening of scope entailed opening the research up to other organisations and locations. As a result, the three new cases studies were researched, based on recommendations made in previous research. Implementing the research accomplished three essential goals. One was to start the process of including multi-mandate organisations into the theoretical framework. The second was to include new contexts, regions, and types of contexts. And the third was to expand the definition of discourse to include thematic aspects. 

There is a quiet satisfaction in producing thoughts in one’s head and getting them on the page as words. That said, writing is the sort of thing that is painful when you are doing it, but you look back on it with satisfaction. The most enjoyable part was the process of coming back full circle, the interest in the topic having derived from my operational experiences, which then became a topic of academic theorising, and has now (hopefully!) been put back into the realm of practitioners, or least put into a form useful to aid workers. But as enjoyable as squaring the circle was, it was only one more step in the process. Then comes the next thought—what next? And the enjoyment of accomplishment turns to trepidation of the future.

Maybe it is not terribly unusual, but I wrote the book for the most part in a public library close to me in London, as I did my PhD thesis. Public libraries are quiet (well, in principle) and solitary (well, once you put your earbuds in and focus), but somehow working in one links you to others who are also toiling away at their own particular projects—school work, professional work, internet surfing, reading, or just killing time. Going to the library becomes a routine. I mention specifically the public library facet of the writing process as in the UK there has been much debate about the utility of libraries, and many have had to close due to lack of funding. But they are useful and needed! Especially for poor students of state—INGO relations, who need a warm place to write in the damp UK winter. 

Absolutely, a new book is in the pipeline. This book was just the next step and is but one component of a larger research project. Thus far it is proven extremely difficult to get state actors—individuals or state institutions, to share their views, experiences, and desires. So that is the next big challenge. The original research plan called for a focus on this side of the equation from the beginning, but I have yet cracked the nut and gotten to the centre of the state perspective. Hopefully the next book will contain much more research findings derived from primary source data from the states themselves. 

Nincompoopolis: The Follies of Boris Johnson, Douglas Murphy. This is an architectural exploration of structures in London the building of which were stimulated by Johnson when he was mayor. Come to think of it, this book is also about the relationship between a state actor and civil society, although in this case, between the mayor of one of the world’s great cities and those who live and work there and share the public spaces. It is for each to decide on which decisions were good or bad, but the discussion is interesting. We all live in public spaces and civil society is all around us.

"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)

Routledge Humanitarian Studies Series

Featured Book

International Humanitarian NGOs and State Relations

Politics, Principles and Identity

By Andrew Cunningham

Paperback – 05/23/2018

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Andrew Cunningham

Research Fellow
King's College London, United Kingdom

Subjects: Politics & International Relations