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Humanitarian space: a review of trends and issues

Research report

Written by Sarah Collinson

Research report

There appears to be an overwhelming consensus among humanitarian actors that humanitarian space is contracting. This is largely attributed to developments since the attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, particularly the use of humanitarian assistance by Western governments to further political and security objectives. According to this narrative, the ability of humanitarian actors to provide relief and protection to affected populations is dramatically in decline. To arrest this decline, greater respect for the principles of humanitarian action (especially impartiality, neutrality and independence) is required.

This HPG Report reviews key trends and issues affecting humanitarian space over the last decade. In doing so it seeks to challenge the dominant narrative on the subject. It argues that the discourse of ‘shrinking’ humanitarian space, to which the solution is simply greater adherence to principles, is not borne out by the evidence.

It is in fact a myth, based on diverse, narrow and misunderstood definitions of the concept of humanitarian space; simplistic historical narratives that obscure the reality and complexity of the humanitarian endeavour; mistaken interpretations of the principles of humanitarian action and their possible outcomes in challenging political and security environments; and an overwhelming preoccupation with the role that external actors play in challenging humanitarian action, at the expense of an introspective analysis of the nature of the ‘humanitarian system’ itself, and its evolution over time.

Sarah Collinson and Samir Elhawary