Lacking any formal definition, the term "humanitarian space" has been taken to encompass any or all of the following: physical locations safe from attack in a conflict; respect for core humanitarian principles, independence, impartiality and neutrality; and the ability of aid agencies to access and help civilians affected by conflict.
By any of these definitions, observers say, humanitarian space is shrinking, with decreasing access to beneficiaries and increasing attacks on beneficiaries and aid staff.
Factors squeezing humanitarian space, according to the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), include a trend toward coherence between political and humanitarian agendas; blurred distinctions between the roles of military and humanitarian organizations; political manipulation of humanitarian assistance; perceived lack of independence of humanitarian actors from donors or from host governments; a perceived social, cultural or religious agenda by humanitarian workers; and a breakdown of law and order.
Coherence and integration - riskier?
Donor governments started to move towards coherence of humanitarian and political agendas in the early 1990s based on the growing recognition that complex emergencies were in essence politically driven and aid alone could not solve them. http://www.odihpn.org/report.asp?id=2607
Further, counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency efforts have contributed to a shift in military policy towards integration of security, political, humanitarian, reconstruction and economic activities. There has also been an expansion in the number of UN peacekeeping missions with a focus on civilian protection.
In 2000 the UN system officially endorsed "integrated missions" to channel UN forces and agencies towards a common political, military and humanitarian goal, putting at their head a single Special Representative to the Secretary General (SRSG) and placing a humanitarian coordinator under the SRSG's management.
And over the past decade some humanitarian agencies have expanded their assistance beyond "life-saving" activities to embrace advocacy, peace-building and human rights promotion among other goals, said Overseas Development Institute (ODI) researcher Samir Elhawary.
"More and more [aid] agencies feel they have to go beyond life-saving.Peace-building, and conflict resolution have been applied to humanitarian relief, which has made relief seem more political. It is not just about saving lives but also about social transformation and tackling the root causes of conflict."
In this mix humanitarian objectives can be subsumed by wider political and military goals, say humanitarian experts. In Sudan the international community is running one of the world's biggest humanitarian operations, facilitating a peace process, pushing human rights and justice through the International Criminal Court, and promoting the comprehensive peace agreement between north and south Sudan.
"Some might say these roles are complementary but the expulsion of aid agencies in Sudan is an indication that these objectives might not be so compatible," Elhawary told IRIN.
Insecurity linked to coherence policies has diminished aid agencies' ability to access beneficiaries, experts say. In the case of Iraq many international NGOs have left; about 60 remain, many of them managed remotely and with uneven geographical distribution, according to a March 2009 ODI report, 'Providing Aid in Insecure Environments'.
More aid workers died in 2008 than in any other year, the report says, arguing that the increase was partly a result of this coherence push. Some 75 percent of attacks - which the ODI says were "increasingly politically motivated" - occurred in Afghanistan, Chad, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Sudan.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, where aid agencies are often funded by governments humanitarian actors are now "not only perceived to be cooperating with Western political actors, but.as wholly a part of the western agenda," the ODI notes in its report.
However, attacks decreased for the International Red Cross Movement, which has pushed its purely humanitarian, neutral line.
But there was no "'golden age' in which humanitarian space was always protected," ODI's Elhawary told IRIN. Aid agencies were manipulated by Biafran secessionists in the Nigerian civil war and the International Committee of the Red Cross was attacked in Ethiopia as early as 1935-36.
And ODI says responsibility for securing humanitarian space lies partly with aid agencies themselves.
It is not right to blame reduced access to beneficiaries solely on the coherence agenda, according to Ross Mountain, deputy SRSG and humanitarian coordinator in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Warfare trends have a more significant role in access than do coherence policies, he said, pointing out that in parts of DRC aid agencies have recently had a tougher time reaching some vulnerable populations mainly because of an upsurge in conflict with militia groups targeting civilians.
Some agencies have adjusted to those realities by reducing their visibility on the ground, working through local NGOs, or improving their risk assessment and analysis capacity and sharing information; but sector-wide progress has been slow.
Further, many agencies still do not anticipate potential consequences of decisions taken in complex environments such as Afghanistan, where "there is no humanitarian consensus and very little humanitarian space," according to Antonio Donini in a Feinstein Center report. http://wikis.uit.tufts.edu/confluence/display/FIC/Afghanistan+--+Humanitarianism+under+Threat
For Howard Mollett, conflict advisor at the NGO CARE International, in settings like Afghanistan agencies must work harder to manage the tensions among competing imperatives.
"Most agencies involved in humanitarian response are multi-mandate," he said. "And that partly reflects the messy field realities in which we work. In one country acute humanitarian needs, chronic poverty and opportunities to promote recovery typically coexist."
Experts say the aid community appears to recognize a shift in approach is needed to ensure humanitarian space does not disappear.
The UN has adjusted the aid element of some integrated missions, Mollett said. In Afghanistan, where humanitarian expertise within the UN Assistance Mission (UNAMA) had been reduced to a few people, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was re-established in 2009; while in Somalia the UN has called for extensive consultation with humanitarians before developing any integrated mission plan.
Mountain said in DRC different actors are tackling the complexity of working within an integrated mission with more mutual respect, helped by a clear civilian protection mandate. "It is not the military doing humanitarian action. rather military and political become strong allies in promoting humanitarian objectives by providing physical protection."
The coherence approach appears to be here to stay; but some 35 major donors have signed up to the good humanitarian donorship principles http://www.goodhumanitariandonorship.org/donor-governments.asp, which stress the need to promote humanitarian space.
A December 2009 UN meeting of OCHA, the Department for Peacekeeping Operations, Department of Political Affairs and IASC will provide an opportunity for the concerned actors to air their views.
This is a sign of a progress, said Mollett.
"For too long the erosion of humanitarian space was put in the 'too difficult' box, but the severity of the situation in countries like Somalia and Afghanistan has brought us to a decisive moment.Perhaps the time has come to recognize the limitations of 'integrated approaches' and set some red lines in policy and practice."