In an environment of multiple tensions and pressures to deliver, humanitarian actors face a particular challenge: although humanitarians share a common set of principles, values and concepts, the definition and uses of such terms are by no means consistent. Stakeholders use the same word with different meanings in mind, which has an impact on the effectiveness of humanitarian programming and brings challenges to policy making and implementation.
Hence, in an expanding and ever more diverse sector involving humanitarian (and development) actors, understanding each other has become particularly important.
Example of the language challenge
Many words are commonly used by humanitarian (and development) actors. Principles such as ‘humanity’, ‘neutrality’, ‘impartiality’, and ‘independence’ are still considered central to humanitarian action. In addition, strengthening the ‘resilience’ of ‘affected communities’ and being ‘accountable towards populations’, is becoming an increasingly shared agenda. ‘Safeguarding’ has emerged as highly contentious and urgent issues. Yet, these terms hide a variety of definitions, understanding, use, and interpretations.
For example, the word ‘resilience’ was mentioned more than 20 times in the “Commitments to Action”, which is a document published by the United Nations based on a review of commitments made as part of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in 2016, and no less than 63 different definitions of ‘resilience’ have been identified across the humanitarian sector.
The conceptual controversy on the meaning of a very central concept like “humanitarian space” is also illustrative. In a 2012 study, Collinson and Elwahary list the various definitions currently existing. The authors identify three meanings which make diverse actors responsible for creating and safeguarding such a space. Building on former Médecins Sans Frontières President, Rony Brauman’s definition of the “espace humanitaire”, some agencies see it as a space where humanitarian actors should be “free to evaluate needs, free to monitor the delivery and use of assistance, free to have dialogue with the people”. Rights-based NGOs like Oxfam prefer to speak about the ability of affected communities to uphold their right to relief and protection. A third type of conception equates the humanitarian space with the respect of humanitarian law and focuses on the responsibility of warring parties. The authors then conclude that “humanitarian space is therefore an unavoidably wide and subjective concept, since different actors with different priorities, interests and viewpoints will inevitably focus on different aspects and attributes of any particular context, and reach different understandings of what they see or experience”
At the operational level, this can create confusion and miscommunication. From a policy-making perspective, using the same word to refer to different concepts and realities, humanitarian practitioners send blurred messages to decision makers.