State of the Humanitarian System 2022 | Briefing: The shrinking space for principled humanitarian action

20 Dec 2022

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In the face of growing constraints, restrictions and attacks on aid, humanitarians find it ever harder to practise their principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. Aid workers often lack the support, skills and will to make difficult judgement calls in complex environments. At the same time, geopolitical shifts have intensified crises and rendered the international ‘community’ less able to respond effectively. In our interviews with frontline workers and leaders, two of the themes that came up consistently were the decline of multilateralism and the shrinking of civil society space. Both have the effect, in multiple ways, of obstructing the delivery of effective and impartial humanitarian aid to those most in need. 

Rising autocracy and weak multilateralism meant norms under attack 
  • Autocracy and ‘strongman’ politics were on the rise in many countries. Sources across the world spoke about national governments feeling emboldened to flout the human rights of their citizens and reject the norms of humanitarian action.
  • The Varieties of Democracy Institute found that ‘dictatorships were on the rise and harbour 70% of the world’s population’.  
  • Social media became a means of spreading distrust and misinformation about humanitarian actors, and was instrumental in the escalation of conflicts in Cameroon, Ethiopia and Myanmar. 
  • Assertive governments were denying humanitarian action. For example, in Ethiopia, MSF was suspended for three months after making statements about attacks on healthcare facilities in Tigray, and the NRC was suspended for over five months, accused by the government of ‘spreading misinformation’. Both organisations have faced suspensions elsewhere because of their public statements, including in Iraq, Burkina Faso and Cameroon. 
  • Among aid workers who responded to our survey, 45% felt that humanitarian space had declined and 24% that it had stayed the same. Only 31% felt it had improved. 

Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, divisions between Russia, China and the West were playing out in denial of humanitarian access around the world, from Syria to Myanmar. 

Attacks on aid workers rose significantly 

In the four years between 2017 and 2020, there was a 54% rise in the number of aid workers attacked. 

  • 947 attacks were recorded over the period, with 1,688 aid worker victims. 
  • Targeted violence against humanitarians increased in Syria (where cases more than doubled), Tigray, Ethiopia and in South Sudan. 
  • The only notable decline was in Afghanistan, where the establishment of Taliban control meant that large areas of the country were no longer violently contested. For the first time in the 20-year conflict, it was no longer among the five most violent contexts for aid workers. 

The overwhelming majority – 95% in 2020 – of victims of attacks were national aid workers 

  • While the number and rate of attacks on international staff fell between 2017 and 2020, they rose for national and local counterparts as the system relied on them to deliver in the most difficult places. 
Bureaucratic and political impediments undermined humanitarian access 

State-imposed bureaucratic impediments and political interference blocked access 

Counter-terrorism measures and sanctions remained a major impediment to humanitarian access 

  • A 2021 survey by VOICE found that 42% of respondents said that these measures affected decisions relating to their programming in the field, by preventing them from carrying out certain humanitarian programmes and activities, or by impeding access to areas where needs are acute. 
  • These measures also had a chilling effect on agencies' willingness to operate: regulations are complicated and unclear, and the risks associated with violating them are high. In Syria, fears of financial or criminal liability have led aid workers to avoid some areas of acute need in the north-west of the country. 
  • However there were positive developments: humanitarian exemptions to sanctions were secured in Afghanistan and Yemen, and some humanitarian workers hoped that this signalled a new understanding and engagement on the part of some donors, including the Biden-Harris Administration in the US.  

Humanitarian agencies were often ill-positioned to make difficult judgement calls 


About ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System report 

Humanitarian action can be a lifeline to people experiencing the worst that conflict and disaster can inflict. For over a decade, ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System report (SOHS) has provided a unique, evidence‑based understanding of the system and how well it works for affected people. Based on a huge body of evidence including exclusive research with crisis-affected people and practitioners, SOHS addresses key questions about performance and effectiveness in areas such as hunger and mortality reduction, as well as giving a comprehensive picture of funding, resource flows, staffing and organisations. Consultations with people affected by crises were central to the research from the outset, and shaped the focus of the report. This edition of the SOHS looks at the period from January 2018 to December 2021 - a period that encompassed the global COVID-19 pandemic as well as multiple armed conflicts - and draws comparisons with previous editions to take the long view on trends, accomplishments and challenges in the humanitarian system.