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Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience

A behind-the-scenes account of MSF decision-making

"Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience" book cover

USA 2011 © Columbia University Press

​​​​​Following a two-year analysis of MSF’s past interventions, MSF released Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience in 2012. The authors of the collected essays and case studies—MSF veterans with many decades of collective field experience—explore the practical realities of humanitarian crises through MSF’s experience in 11 complex situations: Ethiopia, Yemen, Gaza, South Africa, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Pakistan, France, and Nigeria.

Providing behind-the-scenes accounts of MSF’s decision-making processes, they pose the question: Do we—can we—always live up to our principles? Are the struggles and compromises we make to reach people in need in places like Somalia and Myanmar so different from those we faced in Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) following the Rwandan genocide, or in Ethiopia during the 1984 famine? And, as Marie-Pierre Allié, President of MSF France, writes, “How can we judge whether a compromise is acceptable?”

The book also asks larger questions about the aid system. For example, can humanitarian space really be shrinking when resources allocated to aid keep increasing? And was there ever a “golden age” of humanitarian action when independence and impartiality were universally respected?

A uniquely candid discussion of these matters, Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed is part of our commitment to reflecting on past experience in search of lessons we can apply to future projects. What’s more, writes Allié, “At a time when humanitarian actors are questioning their ability to overcome the obstacles they are encountering, we hope this book will help fuel the debate on their ambitions and the best ways of fulfilling them.”

The book is published by Columbia University Press and is currently available at:

Comments About the Book

“A very good and extremely useful book...Clear, practical, and easy to read, the tone of the book is exceptional for its frank and public self-scrutiny.”

—Dr. Hugo Slim, Oxford Institute of Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict, University of Oxford

“Thank goodness for MSF. Where else would we find such candor and self-criticism? Laid out here are...clear-eyed appraisals of how MSF tries, and sometimes fails, to respond with its principles intact. Let’s hope the other relief agencies are paying attention.”

—Peter Gill, journalist and author of Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia since Live Aid

“This is a book about realism: the art of doing what’s possible in impossible situations, and preserving reputation and skills to provide relief in the next crisis, in the next country.”

—Dr. Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein International Center, Tufts University

“This brave and informative book reconfirms MSF as an organization that thinks as well as acts.”

—Mark Duffield, professor of development politics and director of the Global Insecurities Centre, University of Bristol

“[The book] brings out the perennial dangers of silence and stresses the continuing need to highlight the hidden victims of ‘just wars’ (whether these are civil wars, Western wars, or both).”

—David Keen, Professor of Conflict Studies, London School of Economics and Political Science