Overcoming Deliberate Obstruction of Humanitarian Access


Access obstruction is one of the most vexing challenges with which the humanitarian sector currently grapples. Indeed, humanitarian practitioners, in various crisis contexts across the globe, face access restrictions in the form of bureaucratic constraints (difficulties or delays getting visas or in-country travel authorizations); security risks (in particular, when parties to a conflict directly target humanitarian actors for attack); general rent seeking behavior (for example, when authorities or non-state actors seek bribes in exchange for granting access); and explicit access denial. These challenges cut to the very heart of the humanitarian enterprise. Whereas humanitarian action is conceived as a technical and principled exercise that entails assessing needs and delivering relief accordingly, by restricting and controlling access, parties to a conflict often seek to instrumentalize aid for their own political purposes.

In northern Rakhine state in Myanmar, the government has authorized certain humanitarian activities—for example, Red Cross Movement and World Food Programme emergency operations—but a severe gap persists between, on the one hand, persistent needs, and on the other hand, territorial access that humanitarian organizations would require to meet those needs. Even the exact severity of the problem is unknown, given that access obstruction has rendered humanitarian organizations unable to undertake a comprehensive needs assessment. Despite pressure applied at various diplomatic levels—for example, the United Nations Secretary-General has decried the access constraints as unacceptable—the Government of Myanmar appears committed to controlling humanitarian action in northern Rakhine. The fate of the people and communities affected by this ongoing crisis may very well hinge on these ongoing efforts to pry open the ever-shrinking humanitarian space in this context.

So what can be done to surmount access obstructions? One set of options entails measures to persuade actors obstructing access to change their behavior. Measures could include public advocacy or negotiation. Another set of measures entails operating as successfully as possible within those constraints. Regardless, creative solutions are required and these solutions will need to be systemic in nature.