MSF Emily Lynch, 2016

To ascertain the lack of a conceptual framework, the CERAH team carried out exploratory research which confirmed the above and provided key insights.

According to humanitarian professionals, the lack of a common understanding impedes the development of a clear and coherent professional sector and of a cohesive humanitarian community.


In a series of interviews, CERAH staff discussed the project and its assumptions with more than 150 leaders engaged in the humanitarian sector as well as academic partners. There was an overwhelming consensus that the conceptual confusion was affecting policies, practices and performance, and that the multiplication of actors was compounding the challenge. To foster the capacity of national and civil society groups already engaging in humanitarian contexts, a common conceptual reference framework and contextualized or localized knowledge are clearly required. Most also signaled the necessity not only to develop co-creation of the knowledge base but also to devise an engagement mechanism to ensure its dissemination and local adaptation to facilitate appropriation.

The CERAH team also led a desk review of documents in English and French that included definitions of some of the humanitarian terms and concepts used in the humanitarian and development sector. It identified and subsequently reviewed 28 such documents. These were: 12 glossaries, 10 dictionaries, 3 lexicons, 1 encyclopedia, 1 guide and 1 handbook. It is worth noting that the definitions are those given by the authors themselves and are not necessarily commonly agreed. The documents were produced by researchers or research institutes (15), humanitarian organizations (5), national agencies for cooperation and development (3), para-humanitarian organizations (4) and an individual (personal blog).

  • The topics covered relate to humanitarian action in a broad sense, including themes such as interventions in armed conflict, refugees, protection of civilian populations, humanitarian law and health/medicine; and terms relating to international cooperation and development, peace operations and conflict studies.
  • The range of subjects covered varies greatly, and may be restricted to one discipline (e.g. law, medicine) or a thematic area (e.g. refugees, protection, violence).
  • Importantly, while these documents provide a basic definition of the terms chosen, definitions are often not referenced, or use different sources, leading to a lack of consensus on the definition of certain terms. The definition may also vary depending on the area of work to which it is applied.

None of these documents, nor the sum of them, provide a comprehensive conceptual analysis that could inform the argumentation in debates, analyses and research in the humanitarian aid sector. This is a major gap for a sector engaged in professionalization and whose constituency is expanding to include an ever-increasing number of national and international actors.

The lack of a conceptual framework results essentially from the absence of an interdisciplinary corpus of academic research to propose a global frame of reference and the absence of a legitimate professional body governing the sector.

As an example:
The conceptual controversy on the meaning of the concept of “humanitarian space” is illustrative. In a 2012 study, Collinson and Elwahary list the various definitions of the term and identify three types of definitions. 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. This diversity of meanings has practical consequences on the ground: divergent definitions of humanitarian space may lead to very diverse strategies to preserve it, putting the very life of beneficiaries at risk. At the same time, by referring to diverse realities, humanitarians send blurred messages to decision-makers, some of them claiming that the humanitarian space is shrinking and hence must be protected; others stating that the decrease of humanitarian space appears to be a myth.