Humanitarian space in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the theme of this edition of Humanitarian Exchange. A combination of violent conflict and natural disasters has led to widespread humanitarian needs in both countries. At the same time, humanitarian organisations face increasing challenges, undermining their ability to respond. The articles in this issue assess the nature of these challenges, and outline ways in which humanitarian organisations are attempting to overcome them.

In their articles on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Antonio Donini and Jonathan Whittall of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) illustrate how belligerents are manipulating humanitarian assistance for political and military purposes. This has reduced operational access and limited the ability of humanitarians to assess and respond to needs. Meanwhile, communities and armed actors alike are becoming increasingly hostile towards what is viewed as a Western and politically partisan enterprise.

Nigel Pont and Ingrid MacDonald outline their organisational approaches to operating in these politicised environments, and strategies to gain acceptance with communities and belligerents. They emphasise practical adherence to the principles of humanitarian action, locally embedded and participatory programming and good political analysis and advocacy. Norah Niland emphasises how the systematic monitoring of human rights abuses and dialogue with warring parties in Afghanistan can be an effective means to improve the protection of civilians.

Nicki Bennett and Zahir Shah discuss the complexities of engaging in Pakistan with the military, which is both a belligerent to the conflict there and an important provider of humanitarian assistance. Despite the development of principles and guidelines, humanitarian actors have struggled to agree on their interpretation and adherence in practice has been haphazard. The authors emphasise the need for more coherence and coordinated approaches within the sector.

Articles in the policy and practice section of this issue explore new learning from using unconditional cash transfers instead of vouchers in Otuke District in Uganda;  improving the appropriateness and impact of in-kind donations; the findings of a recent ICVA review of NGO coordination over the last ten years;  issues affecting the coordination of the earthquake response in western Haiti; an innovative initiative which supports humanitarians and peacekeepers to make informed risk assessments when procuring air cargo and other humanitarian aid transport services; the advantages of using community-based cost–benefit analysis in Malawi; and the inadequate levels of humanitarian funding being directed towards older people and how mainstreaming their assistance into humanitarian responses can help address this gap.

Issue 49 articles