10. Humanitarian Space

Mobilizing an emergency response requires an operating environment conducive to the deployment of relief workers and supplies, managed in line with the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, independence, and neutrality. This operating environment is called the “humanitarian space,” and can be thought of as:

  • Agency space, in which humanitarians can operate freely and in accordance with the principles;
  • Affected community space, in which the affected community can uphold their rights to relief and protection;
  • International humanitarian law, in which parties to conflicts abide by their responsibilities under the law, including to protect civilians and allow humanitarian organizations to provide assistance;
  • A complex political, military, and legal arena, or the context in which humanitarian action takes place.

Most simply, the humanitarian space can be thought of as a simple term for the complex operating environment in which humanitarian needs are generated, affected populations work to uphold their own rights and meet their own needs, and in which humanitarian agencies respond to unmet needs.

Humanitarian space is often considered synonymous with humanitarian access because the establishment and maintenance of humanitarian space allows aid agencies to access affected people—and vice versa—and provide assistance. Without safe, secure, and principled access, humanitarians and affected populations are jeopardized and may have to pause or suspend operations. Humanitarian space is a critical issue for operations at all levels, from local to national to international.

CARE recognizes that international law guarantees humanitarian space to aid workers, and that states and non-state actors in control of territory bear responsibility for fulfilling the minimum conditions for humanitarians to operate in conflict-affected areas. To facilitate access to the humanitarian space, CARE emphasizes the application of the humanitarian principles. In other words, CARE’s work should be guided by need, and CARE should strive to be impartial, independent, and neutral, and to advocate for these principles to be upheld throughout the humanitarian system.

CARE promotes a coordinated, proactive approach to addressing humanitarian space concerns. Where possible, CARE’s experience shows that working in coalition with like-minded humanitarian agencies operating in the same context can help maintain the humanitarian space; strengthen humanitarian operations; and ensure that no agency’s work is undermined. Advocacy, whether by CARE alone or collectively (CARE’s preferred approach, where feasible), should be as proactive as possible, to keep issues from multiplying.

A conducive humanitarian space is essential to an effective, principled, and safe emergency response but is not a guarantee. To help secure the humanitarian space, CARE recommends:

  • Abiding by the Humanitarian Principles: CARE staff must abide by the humanitarian principles. Failing to do so may jeopardize operations and imperil the safety of staff and affected communities.
  • Considering Interactions with Armed Actors: CARE may interact, or choose not to interact with armed actors—including but not limited to national or subnational government militaries or law enforcement groups, organized armed gangs, international peacekeeping troops, non-state armed groups, and/or private military or security contractors—subject to its policy on Interactions with Armed Actors.
  • Advocating for the Humanitarian Space: The humanitarian space cannot be taken for granted and may need to be maintained, negotiated, or otherwise secured through high-level advocacy. Country offices and CARE Member Partners should ensure that appropriate expertise and capacity is allocated to advocacy, liaising with stakeholders, and negotiations where necessary.

Humanitarian space restrictions

CARE is working in a country experiencing a complex emergency. Although the country’s government made a public statement promising “full commitment to unhindered access for the provision of humanitarian assistance to all persons in need,” aid agencies face numerous challenges, such as flight bans, delays in processing or denials of travel permits, and limitations on staff numbers. Government officials have subjected humanitarian workers to threats, arrests and intimidation, physical and verbal abuse, and hijackings at gunpoint. The government has expelled representatives from several NGOs for seemingly arbitrary reasons, which NGOs have reason to believe are meant to disrupt humanitarian activities. Operating in this environment requires careful liaison with all levels of the government; advocacy at the local, national, and international levels; and working in coalition with other humanitarian agencies to achieve common goals.