Access is the central and overriding problem in humanitarian action. Defined as both people’s ability to reach aid and aid’s ability to reach people, humanitarian access is the precondition for effective and principled emergency response. The worst conflict-driven humanitarian crises occurring today have constrained humanitarian access as a key feature, making lack of access a proxy for severity of need.
The research programme on humanitarian Coverage, Operational Reach and Effectiveness (CORE) studies access in specific emergency contexts to identify common factors, to measure the extent to which populations in need have been able to access humanitarian aid and vice versa, and to highlight useful lessons, good practices and effective actors. In addition to collecting humanitarian coverage data and interviewing aid actors, CORE elicits the opinions and perspectives of crisis-affected populations through remote surveys.
Funded by USAID, and building on Humanitarian Outcome’s past research on Secure Access in Volatile Environments (SAVE), the first two years of the CORE programme focused on three access-challenged contexts: northeast Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Central African Republic (CAR). This report synthesises those findings and discusses the global state of the debate in the humanitarian sector on access challenges and how to solve them.
Data shows that some areas in each of the three countries are effectively inaccessible to humanitarian organisations, and roughly half the territory has at least some access constraints. Greater constraints also correlate with fewer aid organisations operating in the context, and hence lower coverage per person in need. Of the three cases, northeast Nigeria has the most people in need of aid, the most constrained access, and the lowest number of operational aid agencies.
Globally, some humanitarian provider agencies and their donors have started to pay more attention to the access gap and take deliberate steps to improve it. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) now provides humanitarian responders with a minimum package of services on access, and access issues are systematically addressed in donor forums, collective needs assessments, and humanitarian response plans (HRPs).
A handful of aid agencies have adopted global access strategies and invested in training on negotiations and other guidance for operating in hard-to-access environments. But on the whole, these examples are relatively few, and policy change has been slow.
Obstacles to meaningful progress in the humanitarian sector include vague definitions of access and lack of metrics to evaluate it, failure of humanitarian advocacy in the counter-terror policy space, and failure to innovate beyond the traditional models. Host governments have not faced major international pressure to better facilitate humanitarian action, and apart from a few notable exceptions, most aid agencies remain in their operational comfort zones without attempting to extend into more difficult environments. In places where humanitarian access is limited, aid programming often defaults to ‘a supply-driven, mechanical response’, as one aid worker put it, as opposed to aid that is tailored to people’s priority needs.
What improving access might look like depends on the crisis. In the more ‘classical’ humanitarian responses to civilians trapped in or suddenly displaced by fighting, organisations must improve their frontline negotiating capacity with armed groups. But for protracted civil conflicts and ‘chronic emergencies’, which include the cases studied for this report and the majority of the humanitarian emergency caseload each year, the solutions appear less about how to get aid agencies in, and more about how to support local communities to get the resources they need through self-sustaining networks. Most of the analysis, training, and policy guidance on access to date has focused more on the former: aid agencies’ ability to operate and reach people. Greater attention to how people access services and resources would be an important complement. In doing this, access efforts could link more effectively with protection initiatives and commitments to greater accountability to affected populations, and more direct and effective support to local actors.
This report highlights the national and international entities identified in the survey and data findings as especially effective at reaching people in hard-to-reach areas, and some emerging practices and new models that hold promise. These include peer-to-peer learning on negotiated access and community-led, locally-based collaborations between a wide range of actors in and outside the humanitarian sectors.