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38. Humanitarian Space

The mobilisation of an emergency response requires an operating environment that is conducive to the deployment of relief workers and supplies, managed in line with humanitarian principles of independence and impartiality. This operating environment is called humanitarian space. Humanitarian space refers to geographical space in which there is physical access to people in need, and institutional space in which positive social, political and military conditions (including security and immunity from attack) are ensured. This implies that aid agencies are free to assist populations in need, and are not constrained by political or physical barriers. For this to be the case, humanitarian agencies need to be free to make their own choices, based solely on the criteria of need.

Humanitarian space is also defined in terms of the rights of beneficiary populations to humanitarian assistance and protection. This definition grounds the concept in a rights-based approach, which implies that actors-including governments and warring parties-have obligations with respect to their right to assist and protect.

The establishment and maintenance of humanitarian space allows aid agencies to access affected people and provide humanitarian assistance. If safe and secure humanitarian space is not established or maintained, humanitarian operations are put at risk and may have to stop. Humanitarian space is a critical issue for operations both at a field level and in terms of international-level policies, institutions and funding.

2 CARE recognises that humanitarian space is guaranteed to aid workers under Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law, and that states have the responsibility to provide the minimum conditions for humanitarians to carry out their work in areas of conflict. To facilitate access to humanitarian space, CARE places a great deal of emphasis on the guiding principles of the humanitarian imperative, independence and impartiality. That is, CARE’s relief efforts should be driven by the level of humanitarian need, and CARE should promote and protect its independence and impartiality at all times.
CARE advocates applying a ‘quiet diplomacy’ approach in cases where humanitarian space is threatened. It can be beneficial to enlist governments as allies and understand how policy instruments might be used to preserve independence and humanitarian space. Based on ‘best practice’ learned from previous operations, CARE encourages building coalitions with like-minded humanitarian agencies operating in the same ‘space’. This strengthens humanitarian operations, maintains humanitarian space and ensures that no agencies’ work is undermined. Forming a united group increases the possibility of challenging negative trends that require high levels of advocacy.

CARE’s humanitarian space policy promotes a proactive approach to raise concerns related to humanitarian space in UN-led humanitarian system reforms. Reforms of humanitarian coordination and pooled financing should be understood in the context of wider reforms to promote ‘coherence’ in the UN peace and security architecture. Reforms of UN coordination and civil-military relations (e.g. integrated missions) should support humanitarian principles, rather than subordinate humanitarian responses to political or institutional interests.

Humanitarian space is essential to the effectiveness of an emergency response and is not always guaranteed. As such, it is important that CARE’s policy is put into practice. Some critical policy issues that allow CARE better access to humanitarian space are listed below.


  • To maintain a safe and secure humanitarian space, CARE personnel must abide by CARE’s guiding principles of the humanitarian imperative, independence and impartiality. Not keeping to these principles can cause humanitarian work to be undermined, and may risk the lives of humanitarian workers and beneficiaries.
  • On staging a relief operation, it should be made clear that the relief effort is in no way involved with or influenced by conflicting parties or politics. CARE’s independence and impartiality should be stressed at all times.
  • Humanitarian space is most at risk of being violated when the lines between military operations and relief efforts become blurred. It should be made clear that CARE is in no way involved with conflicting parties or politics.
  • Civil-military relations play an important role in shaping humanitarian space. CARE should operate according to a ‘coordination with, not coordination of’ approach (for more information, refer to Chapter 39 Civil-military relations).
  • Humanitarian space cannot be taken for granted and often needs to be negotiated or secured through high-level advocacy. Country Offices should ensure that appropriate expertise and capacity (at senior levels) is allocated to negotiation, government liaison and advocacy in cases where humanitarian space is an issue (see also section 6 Other resources, and Chapter 28 Advocacy).

Humanitarian space restrictions

In a complex emergency where CARE is working, the government places significant restrictions on humanitarian access to populations in need of assistance. Staff is faced with many challenges, including ‘administrative harassment’ such as flight bans, delays and denials in processing travel permits, and limitations on staff numbers. Humanitarian workers in this country have been subjected to threats from government officials, intimidation and arrests, physical and verbal abuse, and hijack at gunpoint.

The government has made a public statement promising ‘full commitment to free and unhindered access for the provision of humanitarian assistance to all persons in need’. Despite this, aid agencies continue to struggle to access humanitarian space. Several representatives of the NGO sector have had their representatives expelled for seemingly arbitrary reasons aimed to disrupt humanitarian activities. Operating in this environment requires careful negotiation at senior levels of government, and joint international advocacy and quiet diplomacy in coalition with other humanitarian agencies.

Mancini-Griffoli, Deborah & Picot, André 2004. Humanitarian negotiations: A handbook for securing access, assistance and protection for civilians in armed conflict. Geneva. Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

Dureaux, Jean-François & Dhanapala, Sivanka 2007?. Carving out humanitarian space

European Commission-Humanitarian aid

Grombach Wagner, Johanna 2005. An IHL/ICRC perspective on ‘humanitarian space'. International Committee of the Red Cross

Olsen, Lara 2006. Fighting for humanitarian space: NGOs in Afghanistan. Journal of military and strategic studies 9(1).

Sida, Lewis 2005. Challenges to humanitarian space: A review of humanitarian issues related to the UN integrated mission in Liberia and to the relationship between humanitarian and military actors in Liberia.