This paper concerns the political economy of aid and offers a theory of humanitarian organization and donor negotiation. Drawing on in-depth interviews with more than 60 NGO and donor staff members, I contend that it is during negotiation with donor governments that organizations can either establish or lose their autonomy from governments. ‘The Great Game’ for geostrategic influence is played through donor purses but organizations are also active participants and move their pieces around the board with more or less success. In the wake of the Syrian Civil War, three major humanitarian organizations – SCI, ICRC, and MSF – took different approaches to donor tightening and loosening of purse strings and altering of funding timelines and priorities in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Yet, in each case, INGOs rarely discarded or entirely changed their on-the-ground objectives but rather negotiated to maintain the core of their own interests and made changes only at the margins or in the framing of their activities. While donor mandates proved constraining factors, their effects on INGO operational decisions tended to be on surface-level framing, scope, or efficiency of response, but not on type of response.
Keywords: Political Economy of Aid, Autonomy, and Negotiation