There is an overwhelming consensus among humanitarian actors that ‘humanitarian space’ is shrinking. This is largely attributed to developments since the attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, particularly the use of humanitarian assistance by Western governments to further their political and security objectives. The corollary of this apparent decline in humanitarian space is that things were better in the past.
In reality, the history of humanitarian action over the past half century or so reveals a far more complex and ambiguous picture. There is no ‘golden age’ of humanitarian space, but rather periods in which humanitarian action was frequently and deeply politicised; when humanitarian access to conflict zones was heavily constrained by concerns for sovereignty; when access depended entirely on compromising principles and autonomy; and when neutrality was all but abandoned in favour of militarised humanitarianism.
Many of the problems agencies face today in delivering relief and providing protection are all too familiar when compared with the past, and are in many respects a consequence of expanding humanitarian engagement in conflict-related crises and the changing nature of the humanitarian system.