MSF Pierre-Yves Bernard, 2016

PHASE 2: Describe conceptual variation

The second question addressed by the project is: How are concepts used across the humanitarian sector?

While the conceptual fuzziness of the “humanitarian language” is well-documented, there is, so far, no common agreement on the relevant dimensions through which conceptual variation can be unpacked. Building on an interdisciplinary and participatory research approach, the Humanitarian Encyclopedia will provide humanitarian practitioners with an in- depth analysis on how concepts are commonly and divergently used in the humanitarian sector.

An example of conceptual fuzziness

The conceptual controversy on the meaning of a central concept like “humanitarian space” is illustrative in this regard. 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”(Collinson and Elhawary 2012, 1–2).

This diversity of meanings has practical consequences on the ground: divergent definitions of humanitarian space may lead to rival strategies to preserve it, putting the very life of beneficiaries at risk (Brassard-Boudreau and Hubert 2010). At the same time, by referring to diverse realities, humanitarians send blurred messages to decision-makers. Some of them claim that the humanitarian space is shrinking and hence must be protected, while others state that the decrease of humanitarian space appears to be a myth.