Humanitarian Space as Arena: A Perspective on the Everyday Politics of Aid

Dorothea Hilhorst*, Bram J. Jansen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

135 Citations (Scopus)
8 Downloads (Pure)


'Humanitarian space' denotes the physical or symbolic space which humanitarian agents need to deliver their services according to the principles they uphold. This concept, which separates humanitarian action from its politicized environment, is widely used in policy documents and academic texts, even though empirical evidence abounds that this space is in fact highly politicized. To some extent the uncritical use of the concept of humanitarian space is understandable because of its aspirational character. This article explores a different angle: how different actors use the concept and the language of humanitarian space and principles in the everyday politics of aid delivery. It proposes an empirical perspective that approaches humanitarian space from the perspective of everyday practices of policy and implementation. It maintains that the humanitarian space is an arena where a multitude of actors, including humanitarians and the disaster-affected recipients of aid, shape the everyday realities of humanitarian action. The paper develops this perspective for two humanitarian operations: a protracted refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, and the tsunami response in Sri Lanka.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1117-1139
Number of pages23
JournalDevelopment and Change
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2010
Externally publishedYes


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