Even in hostile operating environments humanitarian actors engage with armed non-state actors (ANSAs) to negotiate access to civilians in order to alleviate suffering and improve the protection, says a June 2012 policy paper from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). Identifying the obstacles to and opportunities for humanitarian dialogue with ANSAs, Talking to the other side: Humanitarian engagement with armed non-state actorsfinds restrictions created by counterterrorism measures have been “distinctly damaging to humanitarian action” in places like Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan. The report’s authors call for increased support in facilitating productive humanitarian dialogue with ANSAs from donor states and the United Nations.

Engagement with ANSAs to establish effective humanitarian responses to conflict-related needs has become increasingly important in many of today’s conflicts. Yet dialogue between humanitarian groups and ANSAs is often barred by counterterrorism laws, with detrimental consequences for aid workers and those in need of their assistance.
“Counter-terror legislation and donor funding restrictions have discouraged, if not criminalized, engagement,” says the report by the Humanitarian Policy group at ODI. This has “undermined the perceived impartiality, independence and effectiveness of humanitarian response.” Even so, in places like South Kordofan in Sudan and al-Shabaab-controlled parts of Somalia, humanitarian actors negotiate with ANSAs, “with varying degrees of sustainability and success.”
The report says more work must be done to understand the role that the UN, donors and other actors can play in providing political leadership and support for effective engagement. “Greater study is required in order to understand how humanitarian actors are engaging with ANSAs at different levels, in different places, at different times and for different purposes.”
The report is based on an extensive literature review and interviews undertaken as part of a two-year project on humanitarian engagement with ANSAs.