The phenomenon of ‘shrinking humanitarian space’ is earnestly debated by aid workers. The often-heard complaint is that their neutrality and independence is increasingly compromised by donors, peacekeepers and warring parties seeking to co-opt them, and they blame the growing toll of attacks on agency staff on the perception that they are no longer impartial.
Now two researchers from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London have waded into the debate, challenging the whole idea of ‘humanitarian space’ as the agencies define it, and criticising the lack of historical perspective of those who believe there was ever a humanitarian golden age, when neutrality was respected and agencies could work in conflict zones free of political considerations.
In their paper, Humanitarian Space: a Review of Trends and Issues, Sarah Collinson and Samir Elhawary do not deny that the total number of attacks on aid workers has increased. But they argue that the number of aid workers, and the scale of their operations have also increased – massively – in recent years. More than 200,000 field-based aid workers are now estimated to be employed by the UN and international NGOs, and it is not clear that they are proportionately more at risk than their far less numerous predecessors.
Agencies also now consider it normal to expect to be able to work in areas of conflict and have their neutrality respected. That was not always the case. In the 1950s and 60s, respect for national sovereignty kept UN agencies out of countries affected by war, and the refugee agency UNHCR only worked with people who had already left their homeland. In the 1970s, idealistic new NGOs defied sovereign governments and worked with rebel groups to help the oppressed.
In the 1990s international peacekeeping efforts became more assertive and interventionist, but, say Collinson and Elhawary, “many aid agencies accepted the need for ‘coherence’ between humanitarian and diplomatic and security agendas as long as they trusted the basic humanitarian intent of the main donor governments.” It was only after the 9/11 attacks in the US, little more than 10 years ago, that agencies got concerned about being co-opted into the much more explicit security agenda of the so-called Global War on Terror.
“Humanitarian space is generally understood as a space that exists separate from politics,” Elhawary told an audience at the ODI this week, “and that to reverse politicisation we need to return to a clear, solid and predictable model, namely that by upholding these principles, and remaining outside of politics, an agency’s access will be guaranteed. But all access is essentially based on political compromise and results from the interplay of a range of actors’ interests and actions…We undertook a brief historical review since the cold war, and we found no past golden age for humanitarian action.”
The authors also criticise the way major international agencies use the term ‘humanitarian space’, when what they are actually talking about is agency space, space in which they – the UN and major NGOs - can operate as they wish, disregarding the fact that the situation may be very different for other actors doing humanitarian work, or for local people at risk.
In the audience at the launch of the report were people from the very agencies in its firing line.
Marc Dubois, executive director of Medecins Sans Frontieres-UK, conceded there could be merit in looking at humanitarian space in more realpolitik terms, where you negotiate, buy or elbow your way to get what you need. “It’s about understanding interests; it’s about understanding the power play on the ground. And it’s about understanding that while the principles do have meaning, they only have meaning within a given context.”
How that might work in practice was indicated by Brian Martin, until recently the country manager in Sri Lanka for Christian Aid. “In each case you need to look at the contextual side of it,” he told the meeting, “and you’ve got to look at ‘what can I do and what can’t I do.’ I was amazed at some of my colleagues’ arrogance in the way they wanted to do things, and the reluctance they would have to speak to the authorities or to the military…There is a great need to engage and talk with the authorities and get them to agree. Some things you are not going to get. But in Sri Lanka we worked with the military, and the further we were away from Colombo, up in the north, the military were actually doing quite a lot of good things to help the population.”
Participants with longer memories welcomed the report’s historical perspective. “I think we need to understand how we got into this discourse in the first place,” said Jeff Crisp, the Head of Policy, Development and Evaluation at UNHCR. “And I think it says something about humanitarian policy research in that it has always been totally a-historical…We have to get away from the situation where we are only concerned with what’s happening today and tomorrow.”
But there was a word of warning from Dubois. The neutrality of humanitarian space and ideal of the aid worker standing apart from politics might be a myth, but he said: “I think that this 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.”