Identifying contemporary civil wars’ effects on humanitarian needs, responses, and outcomes

Understanding civil wars' effects on humanitarian activities requires mapping systems relationships between actors involved in the conflict

Anastasia Shesterinina

This is a summary of the analytical framework for mapping systems of relationships between the actors at the center of contemporary civil wars that was published in Dædalus; the original publication can be read here.

How do contemporary civil wars affect humanitarian needs, responses, and outcomes? This essay argues that contemporary civil wars are highly complex processes involving a myriad of nonstate, state, civilian, and external actors that develop systems of relationships, which evolve in the course of conflict. Humanitarian actors are not isolated from but are part of these social systems. Understanding the effects of civil wars on humanitarian activities therefore requires mapping these relationships and their evolution and drawing the implications of these changes for the operation of humanitarian actors.

Mapping systems of relationships in civil war

This essay advances an analytical framework for mapping systems of relationships between the actors at the center of contemporary civil wars to understand how the relationships humanitarians establish evolve for reasons outside of their control. This mapping entails not simply identifying the different actors and their interests at any point in time, but also analyzing what relationships exist between conflict actors and charting the dynamics that their interactions produce over time. While these systems of relationships have long been a part of civil wars, the proliferation of actors and their activities in contemporary civil wars makes these social systems increasingly complex.

Nonstate armed groups or insurgents that challenge the state’s authority and control over territory lie at the center of these systems of relationship. These actors mobilize for war in different ways, from clandestine to social movement to regime splinter activities, and are therefore embedded in broader populations to a different extent. They establish leadership structures and institutions that govern behaviors within the organization, thereby socializing their members. But these actors transform through internal politics, competition and alliance formation with other nonstate armed groups, violent and nonviolent conflict and cooperation with the state, civilian responses to these actors’ control, and international intervention.

Photo credit: Nina Luong

Contingency in wartime humanitarian health provision

Because of its universal and vital quality, health care is strategically important for insurgents whose members and communities in which they are embedded require such services and whose internal and external legitimacy in part depends on their decisions around health care. Yet health care provision is uniquely drawn into various relationships between nonstate, state, civilian, and external actors. This means that in some cases these actors can consciously obstruct, refuse, and manipulate health care provision. Moreover, their decisions can change as they navigate a complex set of conflict relationships. For example, insurgents that initially engage with humanitarians can later renege or find themselves unable or unwilling to deliver on their commitments. At best, this can force humanitarians to renegotiate their activities and at worst prevent humanitarian work, including health care provision, altogether.

Humanitarian actors thus operate in dramatically different contexts within the broad rubric of “contemporary civil war” that constrain and enable their activities in distinct ways and that can change unpredictably. In order to understand these contexts, we should place the evolving relationships that different actors involved in civil wars develop at the center of analysis. Humanitarian health care provision is contingent on this evolution and requires locally informed, adaptive practices in order for humanitarian organizations to be able to negotiate access, protect medical facilities and personnel, and deliver vital assistance in an ongoing way in response to changing circumstances.