The Role of Mandates

There is a long tradition in researching the what of humanitarian action. What is needed, and what has been delivered? What has worked? What has not? But what if the ‘why’ and ‘how’ are at least as important as the ‘what’ in humanitarian outcomes?

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Final report: Unpacking Humanitarianism (2020)

For the past three years, HERE Geneva has been researching the role that mandates – defined broadly as organisations’ goals or missions (the ‘why’) – play in how humanitarian organisations set priorities in situations of armed conflict: arguably the most complex and contested spaces in which humanitarians operate.Unpacking humanitarianism, the study’s concluding report, looks at the work of eight humanitarian organisations, operating across four conflict-affected countries.

Based on interviews with more than 260 key informants and an in-depth textual analysis, the findings have significant implications for discussions around the humanitarian-development nexus, humanitarian coordination, and the role of humanitarian principles, and raise urgent questions for humanitarian organisations working in the face of global crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Humanitarian actors are as varied and diverse as the humanitarian landscape. Grouped together, difference is largely defined by what an organisation provides during a response, be it healthcare, food, shelter, livelihoods support, protection, mental health-psycho-social care, cash, and so on. This focus on the ‘what’ of humanitarian action has come at the expense of reflecting on the rationale(s) behind each intervention – the ‘why’.

Yet, until we can appreciate the motivations of humanitarian actors, understanding who is truly best positioned or has the leverage needed to ensure the protection and assistance of people most in need (especially in situations of conflict) will remain elusive. And this means humanitarian cooperation and coordination will remain challenging.

8 organisations participated in the study.


The differences between humanitarian organisations are significant and this diversity needs to be recognised. Lack of clarity around ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of humanitarian action increases the difficultly to uphold and implement broadly-defined common policy positions.

Motivations matter more than labels in complex humanitarian environments. The humanitarian-development nexus is too simplistic a dichotomy to inform cooperation among those working in the landscape of aid in conflict situations.

Working in armed conflict needs to be a conscious strategic choice. This choice requires careful consideration as to the structural set-up of an organisation, and the ideological framework supporting its goals.

How the humanitarian principles are applied determines the approach of organisations to conflict environments. When using humanitarian principles strategically, organisations focus on issues such as access and protection. When principles are used as contextual tools, organisations focus on protection as self-reliance and empowerment and accountability to affected populations.

Leadership matters when navigating conflict situations. What the board and ‘CEO’ of an organisation make of its mission or mandate, rather than the mission or mandate itself, informs an organisation’s strategic direction. Alignment between the global and local leadership is important if an organisation wants clarity and coherence in its vision of humanitarian action.

Effective inter-agency coordination accommodates diversity while providing a framework to ensure the complementarity of the actors involved. Comparative advantages are better leveraged when the development or strengthening of networks and consortia is accompanied by in-depth strategic thinking. Risk management approaches are not only important in informing individual organisational approaches in conflict environments, but they also influence the achievement of collective outcomes based on comparative advantages. In contexts where states are either party to the conflict or are responsible for serious human rights violations, it is particularly important not to consider comparative advantages only in terms of sectoral complementarities, but also in terms of who has what leverage to protect humanitarian space.

Read also the four separate country case-studies

In Mali (also available in French) lack of a common understanding around what constitutes life-saving interventions and a conflation of what may be defined as humanitarian or development approaches at times conflicted with organisations’ overall global strategic direction.

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In Ethiopia, a developmental humanitarian mindset led to the inability to respond to conflict-induced displacement.

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HERE’s study in the Central African Republic revealed very little local response capacity.

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In Myanmar, while the mandate or mission and values appear as a significant enabler for individual aid agencies, they have led to an over-fragmentation in approaches at the collective level. Organisations also tend to focus more on the ‘technical’ side of aid delivery, instead of addressing the critical policy and ethical issues related to the identity of humanitarian action.