04 May 2012 | 16:41
Shrinking ‘Humanitarian Space’ Challenged
ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group recently presented the report: ‘Humanitarian space: a review of trends and issues’, written by Sarah Collinson and Samir Elhawary.
The report (and related policy brief) challenges the dominant narrative on the ‘shrinking’ of humanitarian space that is said to be the result of an increased integration of politics and aid. This is particularly attributed to the 9/11 attacks, after which Western governments used humanitarian aid to further their political and security interests, which has led to an erosion of the principles of humanitarian action and subsequent increase in attacks on aid workers. The authors argue that this thinking is not based on evidence, but instead on flawed definitions of the concept of humanitarian space, a disregard of historical perspectives, mistaken interpretations of the principles of humanitarian action and lack of scrutiny on the humanitarian system itself.
Historical narrative & the principles of humanitarian action
The authors are quick to challenge the notion that things are worse than in the past. They point out that there was never a ‘golden age’ of humanitarian space, but instead we should speak of “periods in which humanitarian action was frequently and deeply politicised; when humanitarian access to conflict zones was heavily constrained by concerns for sovereignty; when access depended entirely on compromising principles and autonomy; and when neutrality was all but abandoned in favour of militarised humanitarianism”. Many of the problems that humanitarian agencies face today, are not only mirrored in the past, but the direct consequence of expanded engagement and a multiplication of humanitarian agencies working in dangerous environments.
The assumption of some humanitarian agencies that greater adherence to the principles of humanitarian action will lead to improvements regarding humanitarian space is too simplistic according to the authors. In itself such principles will not guarantee access as this is the result of the interplay between “competing interests, institutions and processes” in a specific operating environment. In other words humanitarian objectives, cannot be separated from political and security interests.
Defining humanitarian space & the humanitarian system
The authors point to the inconsistencies in the use of the term ‘humanitarian space’. Often the term refers to the actual ‘agency space’, wherein the agency can operate freely and meet its humanitarian objectives. In other instances the concept includes a reference to the space of the beneficiaries to receive protection, or is closely linked to respect for International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The authors propose a definition that takes into account the context in which humanitarian aid is provided and as such the definition “highlights the highly political nature of the task humanitarian agencies seek to achieve and that humanitarian needs (and their relief) are a product of the dynamic and complex interplay of political, military and legal actors, interests, institutions and processes”.
In line with this definition the authors note the failure of the humanitarian system to be self-critical of its own role in impacting on their ability to provide humanitarian assistance to populations in need. Too much focus is placed on the flaws of external players, while the humanitarian system itself is often “exclusive, dominant, internally competitive and fragmented”. The report highlights how a disproportionate share of humanitarian funding comes from a core group of UN Agencies and six large international organisations, all from the West. This implies that inadvertently the system is based on Western values and interests that might clash with those of the places where aid is delivered, leading to challenges often associated with the shrinking of humanitarian space.
To stay and deliver?
The report also looks into the evolution of approaches to security management, including the recent ‘to stay and deliver’ paradigm. Collinson and Elhawary are critical of this approach and state that: “in the most dangerous environments no organisation can rely solely on acceptance-based security, and obstacles to access, such as state-imposed restrictions or active warfare, cannot always be overcome. More fundamentally, what this pragmatic and arguably somewhat technocratic approach to risk and security management masks is the fact that operating in any conflict zone is almost always a messy, dangerous, uncertain and highly compromising process. Current discourse and received wisdom on operational risk and security management beg a huge question about what it really means to be ‘present’, and what the ultimate objectives of this presence are.”
ODI organised a panel discussion to mark the launch of the report. Several humanitarian agencies were present during the presentation and Marc DuBois, the Executive Director of Médecins Sans Frontières formed part of the panel.
The agencies present seemed to largely agree on the need for more self-reflection and greater recognition of the inherent political nature of humanitarian aid, in particular in relation to the provision of humanitarian aid in conflict environments. DuBois pointed to the need for a “real politik analysis of the context in which you work and how do you deliver aid in that context”. However, DuBois also emphasized how “the notion of agency space as humanitarian space has a lot to do with our identity and the myths that we have about ourselves that are very, very important to the way we run, our culture, our drive and dedication […]. And I worry about an organisation where everyone is a political animal.”
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