By Don Hubert and Cynthia Brassard-Boudreau
Published November 24, 2010
- 1 Defining “Humanitarian Space”
- 2 Is Humanitarian Space Shrinking?
- 3 Respect for International Humanitarian Law
- 4 Safety of Humanitarian Workers
- 5 Humanitarian Access
- 6 Blurring Boundaries
- 7 The Military and the Delivery of Aid
- 8 Humanitarianism and Counter-Insurgency
- 9 Integrated UN Missions
- 10 Principles and Pragmatism
- 11 Humanitarian Principles
- 12 Practical Adaptation
- 13 A Beneficiary-Centred Humanitarianism
- 14 Conclusions
The concept of humanitarian space is used to describe the situation where the changing nature of armed conflict and the geopolitical shifts, particularly since 9/11, have combined to limit or restrict the capacity of humanitarian organizations to safely and effectively provide material relief to populations suffering the ravages of war. In addition to the proliferation of non-state actors, humanitarian organizations have pointed to the growth of asymmetrical warfare and an increase in the targeting of civilian populations, deliberate attacks on humanitarian workers, the cooptation of humanitarian response within counter-insurgency operations, the push for coherence within integrated UN missions and the ever-increasing overlap with longer-term development programming as sources of shrinking humanitarian space.
This article begins with an examination of the meaning of the phrase “humanitarian space” and of the evidence for the claim that this space is shrinking due to decreasing respect for humanitarian law, increases in attacks on humanitarian workers and declining access to populations at risk. The following section analyses the blurring of boundaries between humanitarian organizations and other actors and agendas, including militaries and the delivery of assistance, counter-insurgency strategies and integrated UN missions. A third section assesses the possible measures humanitarian organizations can undertake to maximize humanitarian space including the reassertion of traditional humanitarian principles, pragmatic steps that humanitarian organizations can take to improve security and access, and the value of adopting a more beneficiary-centered approach to humanitarian action.
Defining “Humanitarian Space”
There is no common definition for the term ‘humanitarian space.’ Sylvain Beauchamp, in the lead paper on the topic for the Edges of Conflict project observes, “With time and the multiplication of actors involved in the delivery of international aid, as well as their working methods, the notion of humanitarian space has increasingly been used in different manners and for different purposes.”
The phrase humanitarian space was first used to describe the limitations imposed on the “operating environment” of humanitarian agencies operating in highly politicized context of Cold War conflicts in Central America. Its broader usage by humanitarian organizations seems to have begun in the 1990s when former President of Médecins sans frontières (MSF), Rony Brauman, used the phrase ‘espace humanitaire’ to refer to an environment in which humanitarian agencies could operate independent of external political agendas. By the late 1990s the term was in widespread use by the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations. While there are some common elements in the use of the term across the range of humanitarian organizations, there are also important differences of emphasis.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been vocal over the last two decades in deploring the erosion of humanitarian space and the resulting difficulty in delivering humanitarian assistance. For the ICRC, the concept of humanitarian space is rooted in International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The mandate of the ICRC requires adherence to the principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence that enable the organization to “remain active and assist victims of conflict throughout the world.” According to IHL, states have the primary responsibility to facilitate humanitarian action. The ICRC acknowledges that the “humanitarian space” involves a range of actors, many of whom are not bound by humanitarian principles. Ultimately, the creation and maintenance of humanitarian space requires proactive efforts by humanitarian actors themselves.
MSFcalls for a ‘space for humanitarian action’ in which aid agencies are ‘free to evaluate needs, free to monitor the delivery and use of assistance, free to have a dialogue with the people.’ In their view, political actors are responsible for creating and maintaining the humanitarian space in which humanitarian organizations undertake relief activities in accordance with humanitarian principles. As Von Pilar, former Executive Director of MSF Germany, makes clear, their notion of humanitarian space should focus on the suffering and needs of people in danger and MSF therefore does not give priority to neutrality.
Oxfam’s use of the concept of humanitarian space places greater emphasis on the rights of beneficiary populations. For Oxfam International, humanitarian space refers to “an operating environment in which the right of populations to receive protection and assistance is upheld, and aid agencies can carry out effective humanitarian action by responding to their needs in an impartial and independent way.” The organization adds that such space “allows humanitarian agencies to work independently and impartially to assist populations in need, without fear of attack or obstruction by political or physical barriers to their work. For this to be the case, humanitarian agencies need to be free to make their own choices, based solely on the criteria of need.”
The United Nations adopts a more instrumental view. The UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), refers to humanitarian space as an ‘operating environment’ for relief organizations and recognizes that the “perception of adherence to the key operating principles of neutrality and impartiality […] represents the critical means by which the prime objective of ensuring that suffering must be met wherever it is found, can be achieved.” They claim that “maintaining a clear distinction between the role and function of humanitarian actors and that of the military is the determining factor in creating an operating environment in which humanitarian organisations can discharge their responsibilities both effectively and safely.” But as a state-based organization pursuing multiple objectives, the United Nations’ definition explicitly omits the principle of independence as a condition for maintaining humanitarian space.
From these and other uses of the term, it is possible to identify three distinct variations. First, humanitarian space can be understood as synonymous with respect for IHL. The notion of humanitarian space is not explicitly specified in the Geneva Conventions. But states party to the Geneva Conventions, when involved in conflict, are obligated to provide for the basic needs of civilian populations affected by conflict or to allow and facilitate relief action that is ‘humanitarian and impartial in nature’.
A second variation focuses on the existence of a practical, even physical, space within which humanitarian action – saving lives by providing relief to victims of armed conflicts – can be undertaken. This can be conceived narrowly in opposition to ‘military’ or ‘political’ space with a focus on humanitarian corridors, refugee camps, demilitarized zones and ‘safe areas.’ More commonly, however, it is synonymous with acceptance of the role and activities of humanitarian actors by both the parties to a conflict and by beneficiaries.
Third, there are times when humanitarian space seems synonymouswithhumanitarian action writ large. In analyzing the situation in Somalia, for example, one humanitarian organization lists the following phenomenon as limiting humanitarian space: “general insecurity, administrative delays, restrictions or delays in movement of goods, targeting of humanitarian workers and assets including the looting of aid and car-jackings, piracy, negative perception of humanitarian workers, targeting civil society and media, localised disputes/competition over resources, lack of will and/or ability by authorities to address security incidents within their control”.
Assessments of the existence of humanitarian space differ substantially based on the perspective of particular organizations and the specific criteria they chose to adopt. It is not at all clear therefore that “humanitarian needs can be put in focus and practically addressed through a clearer understanding of ‘humanitarian space’.” It may in fact be the case that such needs can be put in focus and addressed most effectively by avoiding the loose notion of humanitarian space and considering the constituent elements of the concept independently.
Is Humanitarian Space Shrinking?
The review above of definitions of humanitarian space identifies three main criteria against which to assess the claim that humanitarian space is shrinking: respect for the provisions of IHL, the relative safety of humanitarian workers and the degree of access to populations at risk.
Respect for International Humanitarian Law
For at least three decades, it has been commonplace to lament a declining respect for IHL. This conclusion fits neatly with the commonly held view that the number of armed conflicts is increasing and that the vast majority of the victims of contemporary conflicts are civilians. Conventional wisdom, however, can be misleading. There is near consensus among empirical researchers that the number of armed conflicts has been in decline since the mid-1990s. Furthermore, there is an erroneous ‘perception that violence in old civil wars is limited, disciplined, or understandable and the view that violence in new civil wars is senseless, gratuitous, and uncontrolled. Those who have looked at the claim systematically conclude that it simply “fails to find support in the available evidence” Adam Roberts, a leading researcher on armed conflict and humanitarian law agrees: “The suggestion that there was a much better era for civilians in earlier wars, based on agreed standards encoded in the laws of war, is misleading.”
And what of the widely held notion that the vast majority – as many as 90% – of the casualties of contemporary armed conflict are civilian? The original sources for these claims, made in the early 1990s, had neither reliable data nor methodology. That these figures have been widely cited since that time by researchers, international organizations and governments does not increase their reliability. Trend analysis of the human costs of armed conflict also rejects the myth that contemporary wars are more savage. On average, armed conflicts in the 1990s and 2000s kill fewer soldiers and fewer civilians than in previous decades. A recent overview on whether conflicts after the Cold War are more “atrocious” concludes as follows:
What we find is that the human impact of civil conflict has diminished in the post-Cold War period. Battle severity, measured as battle deaths, has significantly declined. The magnitude of direct violence against civilians in civil conflict has also decreased.
Contemporary civil wars involve horrific levels of violence against civilian populations. Contemporary conflicts where IHL is violated with impunity are easy to identify. But this does not necessarily demonstrate a broader trend. Claims of declining respect for international humanitarian law imply that there was greater respect in the past. When assessing trends, it is important to note that the decades following World War II were far more violent, and resulted in far more civilian casualties, than is commonly imagined.
Finally, claims about the declining respect for IHL commonly focus on the proliferation of non-state armed groups. But it is not clear that non-state armed groups are in fact proliferating. The majority of armed conflicts since the Second World War have been internal conflicts in which at least one of the warring factions was a non-state armed group. In many of these civil wars, there were multiple and competing armed groups. Whether more or less, the real question is the degree to which non-state armed groups respect IHL. Once again, there is no systematic evidence to support the notion that armed groups in the past were more respectful of humanitarian law or the immunity of civilians in war. Ultimately, the residual category of “non-state armed group” says nothing about the objectives of any specific group or the military tactics that they might employ, and therefore reveals little about the likelihood of respect for IHL. One factor that seems to be important in assessing the prospects for future respect for IHL is the motivations of armed groups. In some cases, groups that seek to acquire statehood seem to be more willing to place constraints on their behavior. Furthermore, organizational coherence and internal discipline are also important factors – a fragmented chain of command makes it difficult to distinguish political targeting from common banditry.
Safety of Humanitarian Workers
According to the UN’s Interagency Standing Committee, one of the most prominent manifestations of shrinking humanitarian space is the insecurity of humanitarian staff. It is commonly acknowledged that efforts to more consistently respond to humanitarian crises have led to aid workers operating in more dangerous situations. International humanitarian workers did not operate in many of the greatest crises of the Cold War. In contrast, few of today’s conflicts are entirely off limits to humanitarian actors. Insecurity for aid workers was indisputably high in Iraq following the US-led invasion, but it is worth noting that there were no substantial humanitarian operations at all during the Iran Iraq war in the 1980s, the deadliest conflict in the world during that decade.
The Overseas Development Institute reports that “260 humanitarian aid workers were killed, kidnapped or seriously injured in violent attacks” in 2008, the highest total in the 12 years for which these incidents have been tracked. The report goes on to note however that, “there is a concentration of incidents in a few high violence contexts. Three-quarters of all aid worker attacks over the past three years took place in just six countries.” And “the spike over the past three years was driven by violence in just three contexts: Sudan (Darfur), Afghanistan and Somalia.” Reviewing the same data, one analyst concludes that, excluding Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia, major attacks on aid workers are decreasing.
Furthermore, it is important to understand the reasons for these attacks before attributing them to the militarization or politicization of humanitarian action. The ODI report states, “it is reasonable to conclude that the increase in violence against aid workers seen during the past three years is at least partly politically oriented.” Yet for more than half of the security incidents tallied in the ODI report, the motives behind the attacks remain unknown. Among the attacks that can be categorized, only half during 2007-08 were attributable specifically to armed opposition groups. For the riskiest environment, Sudan/Darfur, the bulk of the attacks were attributed to “common banditry” while “in Afghanistan and Somalia criminality has colluded with political forces pursuing national (and in the case of al-Qaeda, global) aims.”
With evidence linking only one-in-four security incidents to warring factions acting with political motives, perhaps something else accounts for the increase in numbers. The former head of the ICRC office in Bagdad concludes bluntly, “More often than not, the security incidents suffered by aid agencies are due to foolish mistakes by ill-prepared individuals, and to faulty appraisals of local conditions.” He goes on to point out that “Most agencies admit that they have insufficient knowledge of the contexts in which they operate, that they lack local networks and information sources and that most of their international staff are not familiar with local customs, language and culture.” In a recent study on Humanitarian Space commissioned by UNHCR, aid workers admitted that negative perceptions of humanitarian organizations “were likely to arise primarily from insensitive or inappropriate conduct”.
There is a direct correlation between the findings noted above on the security of humanitarian workers and the ability of those workers to access populations at risk. “Of the 380 incidents in the AWSD (Aid Worker Security Database) for 2006–2008, 82 resulted in suspension, withdrawal or relocation, in 15 countries.”  Again there is compelling evidence that access has been severely restricted in high-profile conflicts including Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and the DRC.
Although difficult to measure, sweeping claims about a decline in humanitarian access seem inconsistent with a reduction in the number of civil wars combined with a continued expansion of humanitarian operations. Budgets for humanitarian operations continue to increase over time: $800 million in 1989, $4.4 billion in 1999, $10 billion in 2004 and $11.2 billion in 2008. And so too have the numbers of personnel employed in these operations: “Global estimates of the number of field-based aid workers employed by UN humanitarian agencies, the ICRC and international NGOs indicate an increase from 136,204 to 241,654 (77 percent) over the period 1997 to 2005.” These figures translate into a 54 percent increase for the UN, a 74 percent increase for the ICRC and a 91 percent increase for international NGOs.
Once again, analyses of broader trends require a historical perspective. It is clear that some of the challenges facing contemporary humanitarian operations arise from the willingness and capacity of humanitarian organizations to operate in more risky environments than they did in the past. This alone suggests that on balance, access for humanitarian organizations has been increasing rather than decreasing. In seeking to respond to crises on the basis of humanitarian need, there are two main barriers to consider: denial of access by a sovereign government and outright physical insecurity. There are some civil wars – Kashmir, Burma, Colombia – where the consent of the sovereign government is the principle barrier to broad humanitarian access. But focusing on the hard cases diverts attention from numerous examples such as Chechnya and Aceh where governments allow humanitarian organizations to operate even where this seems contrary to their political and military interests. Darfur provides an even starker example. The expulsion of aid workers following the ICC indictment of President Bashir has been widely cited as an example of declining humanitarian space. But the fact that there were massive humanitarian operations taking place within the sovereign territory of an Islamic state in the midst of the US-led war on terror is an indication of how far the normative goal-posts in favour of humanitarian access have shifted. Physical insecurity remains a barrier to access in crises like Somalia and the Eastern Congo. But these highly insecure areas have existed in the past and are probably becoming less rather than more common.
What then do we make of the claim that humanitarian space is declining? Across all three empirical measures of humanitarian space – respect for IHL, safety of aid workers and access to populations at risk – the data is incomplete. Careful analysts draw differing conclusions about what the trends really are. But a strong case can be made that by all three of these criteria, decade-on-decade trends show improvement, not deterioration. At the very least, it is clear that there is no conclusive evidence to support the claim that over time “humanitarian space” is shrinking.
Turning from trends to causes, the root of nearly all claims about the shrinking of humanitarian space is that lines between humanitarian action and the roles and responsibilities of other actors on the battlefield are increasingly blurred. This section examines the claims surrounding a series of blurred lines linked to declining humanitarian space: the role of the military in the delivery of humanitarian assistance, the incorporation of humanitarian operations into counter-insurgency strategies, and the integration of humanitarian action within multi-mandated UN missions.
The Military and the Delivery of Aid
Most humanitarians admit that the military has a role to play in creating humanitarian space and even to deliver assistance themselves as a last resort. The challenge, as the Edges of Conflict Report points out, is that “on one hand, state armed forces are obliged to provide such aid, but on the other, there is a need for non-discriminatory delivery of assistance and providing humanitarian access for aid that is neutral, independent and impartial.” Similarly, the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response concedes, whether “the given situation is one of armed conflict and whether the armed force in question is party to the conflict and under what mandate should reasonably be determining factors in defining the extent and nature of humanitarian-military relations.”
In the fifteen years since these concerns were first seriously acknowledged, the need to maintain a clear distinction between humanitarian and military actors has become widely accepted. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) first released Guidelines on the Use of Military and Civil Defence Assets (MCDA) in relief operations in 1995. Updated in 2007, the document reasserts the importance of this distinction: “As a matter of principle, the military and civil defence assets of forces that may be perceived as belligerents or of units that find themselves actively engaged in combat in the affected country or region shall not be used to support UN humanitarian activities.”
In addition, throughout the last decade, most humanitarian organizations and leading donor governments have developed their own guidelines, policies and protocols. Humanitarians have sought to mitigate the unintended negative consequences of associations between humanitarians and military forces by promoting dialogue and coordination while maintaining a clear distinction between the two. UNHCR was among the first, publishing their ‘Handbook for the Military on Humanitarian Operations’ in 1995. Other examples include the ICRC’s 2001 Guidelines for Civil-Military Relations, InterAction’s 2007 ‘Guidelines for Relations between U.S. Armed Forces and Non-Governmental Organizations in Hostile or Potentially Hostile Environments’ and CARE International’s 2009 ‘Policy Framework for CARE International’s Relations with Military Forces.’
Examples of government guidance that clearly articulates the importance of maintaining a distinction between humanitarian and military operations include the ‘Guide to a Constructive Engagement with Non-Governmental Organisations and the Aid Community’ recently published by the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence and the 2003 Canadian ‘Guidelines on Humanitarian Action and Civil-Military Cooperation’. The importance of the distinction is however less apparent for other organizations and countries including the 2003 NATO CIMIC doctrine (AJP-9), the 2001 U.S. joint doctrine for Civil-Military Operations (JP-357), and the 2005 French ‘Concept et doctrine inter armées de la coopération civilo-militaire’(PIA 09.100).
Elaborating guidelines for the interaction between humanitarian and military actors is one thing, applying them in practice is another. Given experiences in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, we should anticipate that military actors, particularly in non-UN missions, will undertake activities inconsistent with the various guidelines in the future. The challenge then will be to promote adherence and application on a case-by-case basis.
Humanitarianism and Counter-Insurgency
Where major humanitarian donors have implemented counter-insurgency campaigns – particularly Iraq and Afghanistan – the threat to the independence of humanitarian action has been most pronounced. In such circumstances, the delivery of assistance is seen as one component of the larger effort to ‘win hearts and minds’ with humanitarian organizations seen as “force multipliers.”
Counter-insurgency strategies employed in Afghanistan have posed a range of specific challenges to the effective humanitarian operations. It has been alleged that psychological warfare operatives have masqueraded as civilians undertaking a humanitarian assessment mission. More broadly, civilian agencies have claimed that “a military involved in combat, while also conducting humanitarian operations in the same context, puts at risk both the civilians caught in the conflict and civilian agencies providing assistance.” Some have argued that aid, in the midst of counter-insurgency, “becomes ‘threat-based’ rather than ‘needs-based’ – that is, it is deployed according to military objectives not impartial assessments of humanitarian needs.” Others have expressed apprehensions over humanitarian agencies being used as sources of intelligence – a US counter-insurgency guide for example identifies humanitarian organizations as “an independent and often credible source of ‘ground truth’ about the areas in which they work.” Statements such as Colin Powell’s in 2001 that “NGOs are such a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team,” imply collaboration whether or not it actually exists. Even unwarranted perceptions can have profound effects. As ICRC’s Vice-President Jacques Forster states: “the main risk I see for humanitarian action in general is its integration – willing or otherwise – into a political and military strategy to defeat the enemy. […] The danger is real if insurgents, or parts of the population, perceive the humanitarian agencies as instruments of a foreign agenda.”
According to one analyst, “no amount of guidelines and cultural understanding can alleviate the biggest threat to humanitarian space in existence today – the emergence of American military doctrine in the post 9-11 world that specifically includes humanitarian activities as mission-essential tasks in winning hearts and minds and stealing the loyalty of the population from insurgents and extremists.” But how can the biggest threat to humanitarian space come from the doctrine of a country, even the United States, fighting in only two of the more than thirty contemporary civil wars? Although undeniably problematic for humanitarian action, the long-term impact of counter-insurgency doctrine on humanitarian space will depend on the number and scale of future US/NATO-led military interventions.
Integrated UN Missions
Throughout the 1990s, a common refrain from humanitarian organizations was that humanitarian action was being employed by the international community as a substitute for the political action necessary to bring an end to the violence and lay the foundations for a sustainable peace.  Ten years later, the model has changed. For the UN at least, the watchword is integration – subsuming all actors and approaches within an overall political-strategic crisis management framework. Following the Secretary-General’s decision N° 2008/24, the principle of integration now applies to “all conflict and post-conflict situations where the UN has a Country Team and a multi-dimensional peacekeeping operation or political mission/office, whether or not these presences are structurally integrated.”
Humanitarian assistance – designed to respond to the symptoms of armed conflict – cannot operate in isolation. But the integration of security, political and developmental agendas with humanitarian ones again blurs boundaries. Oxfam International concludes that despite its evident advantages, integration “creates its own risks, including that of associating humanitarian workers with one side of a conflict, and the consequent risks of attacks on humanitarian workers and the people they are assisting.” While formal integration applies only to UN agencies it has also had a profound effect on UN-NGO relations. “With UN agencies acting as cluster leads, or with direct access to CERF funding restricted to UN agencies, the UN wields significant influence over NGOs through the reforms – in stark contrast to the majority of aid capacity and activity, which is provided by field-based NGOs.”
With the UN committed to integrated missions, lines between humanitarian and other actors will be less distinct. But the loss of clarity of roles may be off-set by other gains. In a 2008 study, analysts argued that the UN mission in the DRC, is a “convincing example of the rationale for coherence between political/peacekeeping agendas and humanitarian/human rights agendas. The approach chosen has resulted in positive results on the ground, specifically in terms of forces of the UN Mission in the Congo (MONUC) addressing protection issues.” While some cases are likely to be more problematic than others, for the DRC at least, the study concludes that there is no evidence to prove “that a non-integrated approach would have been more successful in addressing humanitarian needs”.
As the Vice-President of the ICRC has stated, humanitarian agencies should accept that the integrated approach is here to stay. “Pertinent integration and good coordination are key elements in achieving the best results for the populations in need of protection and assistance”. Accepting integrated missions does not mean that there cannot be improvements to the existing model. One factor commonly identified is the multiple roles expected from the Deputy SRSG. An MSF study of integrated missions concluded: “In an integrated mission setting, the reforms’ reinforcement of the HC position simply strengthens the role of the many-hatted HC/RC/DSRSG, negotiating between global UN objectives (peacekeeping, state-building, development) and the imperative of humanitarian action.” There may well be scope in other areas to adopt a more nuanced approach to integration without necessarily seeking to ensure “that all actors, including NGOs, are moving in lockstep toward a particular political outcome.”
The challenges of coherence and effectiveness that affect the UN as a multi-mandate organization have parallels within the humanitarian community as well. For many organizations that refer to themselves as ‘humanitarian agencies’ also function as ‘development’ agencies. ECHO concludes that being engaged in reconstruction and rehabilitation activities will “inhibit NGOs’ ability to adhere to humanitarian principles.” The main issue here seems to be the tension between the principle of neutrality and the close working relationship that often exists between development agencies and host governments. MSF has gone so far as to suggest, “in war zones multi-mandate organizations should make a choice between relief and development assistance”. But others suggest that multi-mandate organizations engaged in both activities are one way to facilitate the necessary transition between relief and development.
Principles and Pragmatism
The notion of humanitarian space associates attacks on aid workers and restrictions on humanitarian space with the militarization and politicization of humanitarian action. The corresponding policy response then seems obvious: “Maintaining distinction has long been understood as a vital factor that enables the preservation of ‘humanitarian space’.” But where militarization and politicization are not the source of the problem – a considerable proportion of cases, according the analysis above – an emphasis on humanitarian principles may be misplaced. More important, perhaps, is to refine the strategies and protocols for operating in the inherently dangerous situations that humanitarians have encountered in the past and will undoubtedly encounter in the future.
In the face of claims about the shrinking of humanitarian space, the overwhelming response by humanitarian practitioners is to call for a renewed adherence to the traditional humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence. Some analysts however are skeptical, believing that “the principles and tactics that have worked well in the past for humanitarians dealing with interstate wars are undoubtedly of limited utility in many of today’s civil wars.” There are two separate questions here that need to be addressed: is full adherence to humanitarian principles possible for the full range of humanitarian actors, and will renewed adherence actually expand humanitarian space?
The ICRC recognizes that the principles do not apply in a strict sense to all humanitarian organizations. Of the four – humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence – only the first two seem absolute. Humanitarian organizations, by definition, ought to act in all cases on the basis of human need and provide assistance without discrimination. Neutrality is more complex. While it is clear that humanitarian organizations should not favour one warring faction over another, taking sides with populations at risk facing armed attacks can be perceived to be taking sides in the conflict itself. Independence is a serious issue for all humanitarian organizations. Whatever the claims to the contrary, humanitarian action has been and remains largely a western enterprise. There are human rights organizations that in principle accept no money from governments. But all humanitarian organizations, even those that prioritize independent fundraising, accept financial support from Western/NATO governments. Multi-mandate organizations that facilitate the transition to longer-term development necessarily also have close relations with host governments.
Ultimately, it is the practical utility of these principles that matters. Even for the ICRC, traditional principles are a means to an end, not ends in themselves. The ICRC believes that, “It is the longstanding adherence to humanitarian principles that allowed the ICRC to remain active and assist victims of conflict throughout the world” Although there is evidence that the ICRC is able to operate in some very high-risk situations, acceptance by parties to the conflict may be based at least as much on practical measures, including their long-standing presence in a conflict zone and their routine contact with the warring factions. Even if achievable, it is clear that adherence to principles alone will not solve the problems of security and access for the humanitarian community. A practitioner with considerable experience in Afghanistan concludes that “While humanitarians would like to think that more rigorous respect of humanitarian principles acts as their best protective shield, this remains true more in the negative than in the positive in the sense that non-respect of principles increases staff insecurity.”
Effective remedies depend on accurate diagnosis. There are good reasons to believe that the challenges of security and access that humanitarian organizations do face are driven by factors other than a lack of respect for humanitarian principles due to the blurring of boundaries. If this is indeed the case, a reassertion of humanitarian principles will is unlikely to have any substantial effect.
If renewed adherence to principles can be expected to deliver less security and access than is often presumed, greater attention ought to be given to practical measures that can be employed to function effectively in high risk environments. The starting point for most humanitarian organization is the ‘security triangle’ paradigm of acceptance, protection and deterrence. Acceptance is simply the formalization of the long-standing humanitarian emphasis on maintaining good relations with project recipients, local social groups and authorities.
Where acceptance is not enough to ensure a basic minimum of security, diverging protection strategies have been employed. Some organizations have adopted ‘low/no profile’ approaches by removing all identity markers from facilities, staff, and vehicles and engaging in what might be called ‘clandestine’ programming. Others, particularly UN agencies, have opted for a deterrence model using armored vehicles, fortifying offices and hiring armed security. According to a 2008 survey by the Humanitarian Policy Group, “every major international humanitarian organization (defined as the UN humanitarian agencies and the largest international NGOs) has paid for armed security in at least one operational context, and approximately 22% of the major humanitarian organizations reported using armed security services during ”. Both strategies have been accompanied by hiring dedicated security staff, increasing attention to security training and crisis management, and to the further development of security protocols. There is general agreement however that practical implementation continues to lag. Security experts protest the insufficient time and money dedicated to equipping humanitarian workers for the contexts in which they would be working. Despite efforts at elaborating protocols and policies, aid agencies donot have good strategies on “how to translate risk-management methodologies and tools into field-level programmatic decisions.”
Where there is no alternative but to withdraw, remote management can be a viable option. Much attention has been given to the ethical implications of transferring risk to national staff and to the challenges of remaining accountable to beneficiaries. This “long-arm” programming is commonly labeled ad hoc, but it was first used by Oxfam in India more than 50 years ago and has been employed in a series of crises since including Afghanistan, Biafra, Chechnya and Burma. There is no doubt that there will be future crises where high levels of insecurity will make the deployment of foreign aid workers impossible. But these crises are unlikely to arise without warning, giving time for careful preparation for effective remote delivery. And the emphasis that remote delivery places on the roles of local NGOs can assist in an appropriate rebalancing of attention from international to national actors.
A Beneficiary-Centred Humanitarianism
A prominent critique of the notion of humanitarian space is that it focuses too heavily on the perspectives of third parties in contrast to the populations that they seek to assist. This idea is alluded to in the report of the Edges of Conflict Conference which speculates that “a sharper focus on civilians as the beneficiaries of humanitarian aid and protected status from attack will provide an alternative paradigm to consider the challenges of delivering such aid in the midst of a complex environment.” Whatever the prospects for an alternative paradigm, an emphasis on beneficiaries is an important corrective to much of the discussion on humanitarian space.
There is broad agreement that no general right of humanitarian assistance exists in international law and it is unlikely that further legal developments in this area should be a short-term priority. More important is the shift in emphasis that comes from reflecting on what it would mean to have a right not to provide humanitarian assistance but to receive it. According to Jean-Francois Vidal of Action Contre la Faim, “the problem with the traditional idea of humanitarianism is that it demands access for [NGO] workers to reach victims who then become the object of “our” compassion. What I support is the victims’ access to their rights – that is, a construction that makes them subjects, not objects.”
Much has been written about the need for accountability to beneficiaries. Principle 9 of the Red Cross Code states that “We hold ourselves accountable to both those we seek to assist and those from whom we accept resources” while the Sphere Humanitarian Charter states that “We acknowledge that our fundamental accountability must be to those we seek to assist.” There are many ways in which accountability to beneficiaries can be pursued. One starting point is clear – accountability means nothing in the absence of knowledge about the perceptions and priorities of the beneficiaries themselves. More than a decade ago, the ICRC broke new ground with the publication of People on War. And there have been some important parallel efforts to seek out the views of populations at risk. But it remains the case that “governments, international agencies and local organizations have generally recognized the importance of consulting with beneficiaries, but often fail to carry through with consultations in practice.”
Putting the principle of beneficiary-centred humanitarianism into place will not be easy. But it would be an indication of progress if in the years the volume of words spoken and written on that subject came anywhere close to those currently devoted to the problem of shrinking humanitarian space. Focusing in the first instance on the perspective and possibilities of populations at risk does not solve the inter-related problems of security and access. It may however help to identify strategies through which the traditional ends of humanitarian action – the survival and dignity of populations at risk – can be secured through new means.
The notion of humanitarian space embodies a series of assumptions that together imply an inexorable decline in the ability to provide material assistance to populations affected by armed conflict. Disaggregating the concept demonstrates that although most of these assumptions contain an element of truth, they are highly context specific. On the basis of the analysis above, the following conclusions can be drawn:
- There is no conclusive evidence that humanitarian space is declining over time. By almost any measure – size of budgets, number of personnel – there continues to be decade upon decade growth in humanitarian operations. Access to vulnerable populations, with some notable exceptions, is better now than in previous periods. Violations of IHL are widespread but macro-trends suggest that there are probably fewer violations today than in the past. The recent increase in attacks on humanitarian workers is confined to a few high-risk conflicts; only one-quarter of attacks can be attributed to “political targeting.”
- When donors are occupiers and combatants, security & access will be compromised. Evidence for the shrinking of humanitarian space is easily found in cases like Iraq and Afghanistan. In both situations the major humanitarian donors were also occupying forces engaged in high-intensity combat operations and psychological warfare.Counter-insurgency operations do militarize and politicize humanitarian operations, and security and access will be reduced. Whether this is part of a longer-term trend however will depend on the likelihood of future US/NATO combat interventions.
- Only specific non-state armed groups threaten security and access. Non-state armed groups are not new, nor are they proliferating.Some have been more respectful of humanitarian law (e.g. some national liberation movements) and others less. Motivations of armed groups are important – those that seek to acquire statehood may be more willing to place constraints on their behavior. Organizational coherence and discipline are also important – fragmentation of non-state armed groups makes it difficult to negotiate access and to distinguish the targeting of aid workers from banditry.
- Sometimes less ‘humanitarian space’ is more. Recent emphasis on the notion of humanitarian space implies that this objective should be privileged over others. The provision of life-saving relief to populations suffering the ravages of war must remain a priority. But the provision of humanitarian assistance must not be the overarching or even primary objective. It is better to have integrated UN missions with strong political mandates, even accepting that this may in some instances compromise the purity of humanitarian action, than to revert to a situation where humanitarian action is a substitute for political solutions.
- Adherence to traditional humanitarian principles will not guarantee space. There is some scope for aligning field practices with humanitarian principles – particularly responding to human need without discrimination. Neutrality and independence are more difficult: the former can be compromised by taking the side of populations at risk, the latter by dependence on a small number of donors and the unavoidable association that multi-mandate organizations have with host governments.
- Humanitarian organizations have scope to expand space and retain access. Guidelines on the role of the military in the delivery of assistance are well-established. There is only limited scope for negotiating clearer boundaries during counter-insurgency operations. Further refinements are possible to the integrated UN mission model. Field protection strategies can be further elaborated. As situations of unacceptable risk have occurred in the past and will occur in the future, strategies for remote delivery should be formalized.
- Focus on civilian populations at risk rather than humanitarian space. When pressed, all humanitarians would concede that humanitarian space is not an end in itself, but a means to ensure the survival and dignity of vulnerable populations. The consolidation of a broad range of disparate challenges under the banner of ‘humanitarian space’ reinforces the already existing tendency of outsiders to view crises from their own perspective. Emphasis on the perspectives and priorities of beneficiaries can help to correct this imbalance.
- Abandon the term humanitarian space. There are times when adopting concepts that consolidate disparate trends into an overarching framework can be useful, but this is not one of them. By conflating a range of largely disconnected phenomena under this single heading, humanitarian organizations have generated an unnecessarily gloomy outlook on the prospects for effective humanitarian operations. This conflation is a barrier to analyzing and responding to the very real challenges of security and access facing humanitarian organizations. The alternative is to focus on constituent elements, carefully examine the context specific nature of the challenges, and then seek to address them issue-by-issue.
Don Hubert is Associate Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. His research focuses on global humanitarian politics. Prior to 2007, he led policy development on Canada’s human security agenda at the Department of Foreign Affairs for a decade. Cynthia Brassard-Boudreau is a Masters student at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa. She is in the process of completing a memoire on the security of aid workers in Afghanistan, the DRC and Sudan.
Acknowledgements: This article was originally prepared for the The Edges of Conflict project, launched in 2007 by the Canadian Red Cross and the Liu Institute at the University of British Columbia. We would like to thanks Ilario Maiolo of the Canadian Red Cross and Benjamin Perrin of the Liu Institute for their support and the participants at the Edge of Conflict meeting held in Ottawa in April 2010 for their comments and suggestions. We would also like to thank Antonio Donini of the Journal of Humanitarian Assistance for his insightful questions and comments.
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 Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Chad, Iraq and Pakistan.
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 Thomas G. Weiss, Humanitarian Intervention (Polity Press, 2007), 74. For 2008 figure see Global Humanitarian Assistance Latest DAC data release reveals big rise in humanitarian expenditure in 2008 (GHA, Dec 18, 2009). Figures estimated from ODA expenditures and include disaster response. However, top recipients of humanitarian assistance indicate that most humanitarian expenditure was destined to war-affected countries.
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 See for example Adele Harmer (2008) on possible causes of rising number of attacks on aid workers: “Another factor could be the increased number of NGO operations in high-risk areas over the past few years. NGO concerns on the impacts of political and military influences can therefore be linked directly to their increasing exposure in the field”. (p. 534)
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 For a similar argument on the improbability of frequent US/NATO missions, see Sarah Collinson, Samir Elhawary and Robert Muggah, “States of fragility: stabilisation and its implications for humanitarian action”, HPG Working Paper (May 2010), 277.
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 In 2008, MSF received at least 10% of its funding from public sources including ECHO (the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office), the governments of Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and the UK, which are all NATO countries. Returning to Afghanistan after 5 years of absence, the organization chose to rely exclusively on private funding for its country program. CARE, Save the Children and Oxfam all accept government funding, though Oxfam has refused any funding for their Iraq program from governments involved in the conflict.
 Michael Khambatta “Humanitarian Space and Stability Operations”. On the Edges of Conflict Working Paper (2009), 1.
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 See for example Dinstein, Yoram “The Right to Humanitarian Assistance”. Naval War College Review (2000).
 Cited in David Rieff, “Humanitarianism in Crisis”, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 81, No. 6 (Nov.-Dec., 2002), 111-121.
 See for example: Antonio Donini et al., Mapping the Security Environment: Understanding the perceptions of local communities, peace support operations and assistance agencies (Feinstein International Famine Center, 2005); Brookings Institution and University of Bern – Project on Internal Displacement, Listening to the Voices of the Displaced: Lessons Learned by Roberta Cohen (September 2008); Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP), Participation by Crisis-Affected Populations in Humanitarian Action: A Handbook for Practitioners (draft). (Overseas Development Institute, 2003).
 Brookings Institution and University of Bern – Project on Internal Displacement, Moving Beyond Rethoric: Consultation and Participation with Populations Displaced by Conflict of Natural Disasters (October 2008).
 John Mitchell, “Accountability to the beneficiaries of humanitarian aid: old messages, new messengers”, Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, 38 (June 2007).
©2010 The author(s). All opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, its editors and staff, the Feinstein International Center, or Tufts University. While every effort is made to ensure accuracy, any errors in the article are solely the responsibility of its author.