Feature
Children in Afghanistan. Photo: C. Nelson/Mercy Corps.

A Question of Values: Neal Keny-Guyer ’82 on Serving Humanitarian Needs in Conflict Zones 

In this new series, leaders tell stories about drawing on their core values in critical moments. We talked to Neal Keny-Guyer ’82, the CEO of Mercy Corps, about negotiating with extremist groups to provide humanitarian relief in conflict zones.



Getting help to those in need—whether those reeling from a natural disaster or crushed in the grip of extreme poverty—is always hard. It’s further complicated when relief organizations have to work inside an active conflict zone, or in territory controlled by warlords, repressive governments, or other bad actors. 

How do humanitarian groups navigate that ethical thicket? Are the lines different in a sudden crisis than in a seemingly endless conflict? 

We spoke with Neal Keny-Guyer ’82, the CEO of the global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps, about the ideas and values that have guided him in dealing with ISIS, the Taliban, North Korea, and other extreme groups and regimes. “Often, in situations of conflict around the world, there are no clean hands,” he said. “But if you’re going to address root causes, you’ve got to get those people at the table. You’ve got to build relationships.“


I think it’s hard to find a code better than the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. One, it puts everybody on the same playing field. Two, it upholds concepts of dignity. Three, it reminds us, in many ways, except for the grace of God, we could be in situations of vulnerability or suffering. We are all each other’s keeper. We are all responsible together for the world we live in.

While that’s a solid foundation, there are often gray areas that we all confront, where I think it’s important that you have both a long-term perspective and a firmness in your conviction. 

I can tell you what some of those gray areas are in my work. We’re operating where there are critical humanitarian needs and those critical needs are driven often by conflict, and underlying conflict is often nasty politics. How do you work in a way so that everybody can see a common future together? How do you bring actors to the table? Often, in situations of conflict around the world, there are no clean hands. But if you’re going to address root causes, you’ve got to get those people at the table. You’ve got to build relationships. 

Mercy Corps has worked with North Korea, a regime that doesn’t reflect our values. But we want a peaceful Korean peninsula because the alternative is just horrific. In the south of Afghanistan, you can’t work with the most vulnerable people if you don’t have relationships with the Taliban. It isn’t going to happen. We come from norms where we uphold the rights of women—the ability of women to choose their own careers and to be empowered to make their own decisions. We have to operate in some conservative, religious areas in Afghanistan and often in very tribal contexts where the underlying norms are very different.

There are other areas of Afghanistan where you have to have at least tacit acceptance from even more extreme groups. In various places, we’ve worked with ISIS. How far do you go in negotiating with an extremist group for access? It’s a question that we wrestle with continually.

“There are no clean hands. But if you’re going to address root causes, you’ve got to get those people at the table.”

If a program is more lifesaving, then you’re willing to go further. But if it’s supporting the work of smallholder farmers, for example, what is the right line there? I, as a leader, and we, as an organization, have clarity on the things we clearly wouldn’t do. We would never pay bribes or an “access” tax, but the mere fact of negotiating might enable a group to exercise more influence. If you make a mistake, you can get people killed. If you make a mistake, you perhaps can give groups like that too much standing. How do you remain true to your own values while also moving the needle in terms of progress?

First and foremost, you want to be clear about what’s the right thing to do. But you also have to be smart. You have to think long term. If your time horizon is too short, you might be tempted to make some ethical compromises in the gray areas. And you have to look at it in culturally sensitive ways. I find that empathy and emotional intelligence inform the process of ethical decision-making as much as reasoning, knowledge, and moral philosophy.

CEO, Mercy Corps