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.