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[WebDebate #17 summary] Humanitarian diplomacy and the influence of new actors and new technology

Published on 21 November 2017
Updated on 05 April 2024

Our November WebDebate focused on humanitarian diplomacy. As one of the ‘new diplomacies’, it does not only remind us of the importance of new actors, but also of the importance of conducting careful stakeholder analysis. The growth of technology, and especially social media, has definitely enhanced the ability of new actors to emerge and participate. What are the lessons we can draw from looking at humanitarian diplomacy and what is the impact of new actors and technology?

To answer these questions, we had two distinguished guests: Ambassador Christopher Lamb, special adviser to the Australian Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and Mr Javier Ormeno, disaster response and recovery senior officer at the Red Cross, who has been part of the Red Cross Movement since 2008. The web debate was moderated by Dr Katharina Höne, a research associate in diplomacy and global governance at DiploFoundation.

What is humanitarian diplomacy and which tools does it use to advance its agenda?

The definition that Lamb put forward, which was adopted in 2009 by the IFRCC (today used by many international actors, including some governments) reads as follows: ‘Humanitarian diplomacy is persuading decision makers and opinion leaders to act at all times in the interests of vulnerable people, and with full respect for fundamental humanitarian principles.’

What is important to note is that diplomacy in this case is about persuasion and to a lesser extent, about advocacy and negotiation. The goal of the humanitarian diplomat in this sense is to show how a specific course of action is in the best interest of those involved. Lamb emphasised that decision makers and opinion leaders should always work in the interest of vulnerable people, and that any person involved in humanitarian work should respect the fundamental humanitarian principles adopted by the United Nations,: humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence.

Organisations conducting humanitarian diplomacy use tools such as new technologies, and rely on their own expertise and the expertise of their team, co-operating with appropriate external partners such as NGOs, governments and international bodies, in order to implement their mandate to help and resolve problems of those who are in need of humanitarian help.

Lamb also stressed that for humanitarian diplomacy to be successful, it is important to make a proper stakeholder analysis: to see who are you working with, who the interested parties are, who they represent, what their policies are, what they are like personally, and what is the way of influencing them to come to a common understanding. Based on this, humanitarian diplomats gain a better understanding of ‘how things are done’ locally and how to best communicate to all relevant stakeholders.

With the emergence of new technologies and electronic communications,  many key actors of diplomatic work and diplomatic praxis are familiar with such technology and use it. People on the ground use social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in order to communicate certain information. The stakeholder analysis can help to understand who these people are,  for what purpose they are disseminating information, and finally, what is the information they need and how it should be communicated.

Lamb concluded by arguing that one of the things that technology has changed is that accountability is no longer only to those who appointed us, but directly back to the beneficiaries of our actions, to all stakeholders.

Ormeno took the floor, focusing in his introduction on connecting his human rights research with humanitarian diplomacy tools. He stressed the fact that humanitarian diplomacy tools can be used to shape clearer strategies and engage in creative ways of advocacy and persuasion. To underline his points, he analysed the ways two different organisations in Peru used a theater and plays performed there for advocacy means, in promoting LGBT rights. He highlighted that the two advocacy groups use a lot of social media tools, as well as television and radio stations in order to reach the public and raise LGTB issues.

Who is a humanitarian diplomat?

To answer this question, Lamb argued that it can be any representative, any person, an NGO employee, a field worker, or even a volunteer. What makes that person a humanitarian diplomat is the understanding of certain tools, such as protocol, but also the commitment to protecting the most vulnerable and to the fundamental humanitarian principles. Lamb emphasised that the people at the local level often need to act in just the same way and with the same objectives and purposes as the traditional state diplomats in capitals.

Ormeno agreed that diplomacy is not exercised only by state representatives and agents, but can also be carried out by communities at the local level, as his examples aptly illustrated.

What is the key challenge or key hope for the future of humanitarian diplomacy?

Ormeno concluded by emphasising the need of distributing humanitarian diplomacy tools, not only to trained officials, but to the local community leaders as well, in order to reach and achieve the goals of their communities. Lamb stressed the challenges for humanitarian diplomacy and the governments in the future: to listen more, work closer and engage more with the local communities and the public in general. He argued that if that happens, we would be looking at a very different world in the years ahead.

Mr Arieh Hurel is an intern with DiploFoundation

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