The Need for a Cooperation Framework between Non-state Armed Groups and Humanitarians

In August 2022, there was a diplomatic scuffle: the head of the United Nation’s World Food Program (WFP) accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF, a rebel group fighting in northern Ethiopia) of stealing 570,000 liters of fuel. In response, the TPLF offered a contract showing that they had loaned more than 650,000 liters to the WFP.

The incident shone a bright light on one of the murkiest—but quotidian—aspects of humanitarian aid provision: the extent to which effective deployment of aid requires engagement with non-state armed groups. Interviews with humanitarian practitioners conducted by the author alongside her collaborator Dr. Susanna Campbell underscored that cooperation with non-state armed groups is an unremarkable occurrence—both because of how common it is and because of the purposeful silence around the activities. The opacity surrounding how, when, and why humanitarians engage with armed groups is the result of a number of factors. Among them are the threat of being held legally liable under counterterrorist legislation, a deference to sovereignty baked into the international aid system, and a lack of clear guidance from humanitarian organizations.

While there are compelling reasons why humanitarians may be skittish about communicating about their cooperation with non-state armed groups, there are also persuasive examples of such cooperation enabling the distribution of aid to hard-to-reach populations. Consider, for example, the Polio Control Task Force (PCFT) in Syria, which involved cross-border distribution of vaccines and cooperation with certain Syrian armed rebel groups. The campaign ultimately vaccinated more than one million children. Polio inoculation campaigns in Somalia and Nigeria also benefited from collaboration with non-state armed groups.

Particularly under the constraints imposed by the Covid-19 crisis, it is more important than ever to think through ways in which humanitarians can engage non-state armed groups to deliver services. As the research on violence against aid workers underscores, not all rebel groups will operate in good faith or be effective partners. 

Still, there is much to be gained—and many lives to be saved—by establishing a more principled approach to cooperation between non-state armed groups and humanitarians. Doing so would help humanitarians fulfill the principle of impartiality, by increasing their access to populations outside of the state’s control. Facilitating this sort of collaboration requires reforming the counterterrorism financing regulations to assuage humanitarians’ fears of being held legally liable for providing support to armed groups deemed terrorists. Furthermore, such collaboration also requires reform in how humanitarian staff are trained to approach such relationships and the reporting standards from field offices to headquarters. These reforms will be difficult—but they are critical to facilitating effective humanitarian aid provision.

Hilary Matfess is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.