The myth and mystique of humanitarian space
“Humanitarian space is generally understood as a space that exists separate from politics,”
The phenomenon of ‘shrinking humanitarian space’ is earnestly debated by aid workers. The often-heard complaint is that neutrality and independence is increasingly compromised by donors, peacekeepers and warring parties seeking to 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.”
No comments yet.