The concept of humanitarian space has been subject to multiple interpretations, with definitions frequently tailored to individual mandates of humanitarian agencies or prioritising particular aspects of humanitarian activity or need. The most common understandings include:
- the physical access that international aid agencies and their partners have to populations in need;
- agencies’ ability to adhere to the core principles of humanitarian action;
- the nature of the ‘operating environment’ that they work in, particularly security conditions; and
- the ability of populations themselves to reach needed lifesaving assistance and protection.
Together, these concepts capture the objectives of humanitarian organisations, the means through which agencies respond, the environments in which these activities take place and the ability of populations in need to survive and cope in times of crisis. The lack of clarity and knowledge about the meanings of the concept and how they are related, and about the numerous factors and trends affecting them, impedes wider understanding of the contexts and challenges of contemporary humanitarian action. This meeting explored the various meanings and uses of humanitarian space and initiate a dialogue on how best to understand and apply the term and discuss the implications these have for understanding wider trends and challenges and developing appropriate responses.