It was nearly lunchtime at the one-day conference on humanitarianism by City University of New York's Graduate Center when Jennifer McAvoy hit the neutrality nail on the head.

"The context of us-versus-them international politics has had a chilling effect on the notion that humanitarian actors must be able to speak and interact with everyone – even terrorist organizations," said McAvoy, who's been analyzing security and protection at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for the past couple years. "That's the hurdle we have to get over."

In taking sides in such hotspots as Darfur, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq, humanitarians jeopardize not only themselves but the civilians they intend to help. The result has been a rash of attacks on aid workers, more civilian deaths, and humanitarianism in a quandary.

That the declining impartiality of aid has decreased security is no longer in doubt. Last year, the Afghan NGO Security Office found that over 65 percent of aid attacks were by politically motivated armed opposition groups, rather than petty criminals. Other studies revealed similar political motivations.

"Aid agency staff are being increasingly targeted by the Taliban and other insurgents for their perceived instrumentalization by, and support of, alien political agendas," Antonio Donini wrote in a just-released report on aid in Afghanistan for the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University. "Large swathes of the country are no-go areas."

The International Rescue Committee knows this all too well: Four of its staffers were killed in a brutal roadside attack last August. Sarah Smith, IRC's director of child protection, admitted her organization's alignment with the Afghan government "has directly threatened our staff." She said IRC was unsure how to address the issue.

"We struggle to find this balance between standing up for protection issues and human rights with jeopardizing security and jeopardizing our presence," Smith said.

In his report, Donini detailed how the United Nations in the 1980s negotiated clearance for U.N. bodies and a clutch of humanitarian actors in Afghanistan. They were able to work cross-border into Pakistan and Iran, go from mujahedin to Russian-held towns and even work in heavily contested areas because they had gained clearance from local communities. That consent is not there today, "partly because the international community, rhetoric aside, apparently values humanitarian principles less than it did twenty years ago."

Those principles are the subject of much debate among humanitarian actors.

"Oxfam has always said it's not a neutral actor," said an Oxfam staffer at the conference. "The current situation in 2008 and 2009 is really challenging ourselves internally in how we look at our mission and our reason for being."

Many are coming around to the idea of active acceptance. The concept, practiced most notably by the International Committee of the Red Cross, entails embracing and clarifying humanitarian principles and negotiating with governments and communities for consent.

There's just one problem.

"We seem to have forgotten how to negotiate," McAvoy said.

As more and more constraints against humanitarian access have emerged – from climate, terrain, and lack of infrastructure to a state's complex web of bureaucracies and diversion of aid by locals – most humanitarian actors have tended to either choose sides or walk away, rather than opening a dialogue to gain consent.

"We seem to be sort of flailing in confusion in a number of situations," she said.

Donini noted that ICRC is the only international organization that is able to work in Taliban-held areas in Afghanistan. But Larissa Fast, assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Studies, is wary of putting too much faith in active acceptance.

"We have to be careful of the lessons we take from ICRC," she said, pointing to the organization's wide variety of activities, reaching beyond humanitarianism. "We don't have enough evidence to say for sure that active acceptance works."

The question of neutrality remains an urgent one for humanitarians.

"We are at a crossroads," McAvoy said. "Either we abandon our principles and align ourselves with an approach to access that is not dependent on consent, but rather is more a demand for access … or we reinforce consent and seek to deepen our understanding of humanitarianism and use that as the basis for negotiating and communicating and reaching populations in need."

About the author

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    David Lepeska

    David has served as U.N. correspondent for the newswire UPI and reported for several major newspapers, including the New York Daily News and Newsday. He was chief correspondent for the Kashmir Observer in Srinagar, India, and regularly contributes to the Economist, among other publications. Since 2007, David has reported for Devex News from Washington, New York, as well as South Asia.