Issue 55 - Article 10

Redefining humanitarian space: the Kachin IDP crisis in Myanmar

October 2, 2012
Carine Jaquet and Conor O’Loughlin
A doctor treats an elderly patient at the Je Yang IDP camp, Kachin State

The concept of humanitarian space has been the subject of intense debate in recent humanitarian discourse. Dominant still is the argument that this space is contracting, making it more difficult for humanitarian actors to reach crisis-affected civilians. However, this narrative has been increasingly challenged. New research highlights a range of definitional differences and a dearth in empirical evidence to support the ‘shrinking space’ hypothesis. See Sarah Collinson and Samir Elhawary, Humanitarian Space: A Review of Trends and Issues, HPG Report 32, April 2012, uk/resources/docs/7643.pdf.  Policy-makers are beginning to lose patience with the term’s vagueness. British Minister of State for International Developmental Alan Duncan has banned the Department for International Development (DFID) from using ‘jargon’ including ‘humanitarian space’. See  This article aims to advance the current debate by determining the extent to which this conceptual confusion actually impacts on humanitarian interventions. Is it just academic, or does it help shape humanitarian operations?

To do this, we look at the current humanitarian crisis in Kachin State in Northern Myanmar – one of the latest examples proffered by some international agencies to make the case that humanitarian space is under threat. Since the outbreak of hostilities in June 2011, many agencies have complained of restricted access to 60,000 fleeing civilians displaced in various locations of Kachin State and along the Myanmar–China border. Certainly, international agencies face many operational challenges in Kachin. It is clear that a number of different factors have hindered their ability to deliver aid, including travel restrictions for international staff, general insecurity, the destruction of roads and bridges and concerns about jeopardising relations with the government at a crucial juncture in Myanmar’s political development. Taken together, these factors have been perceived by some international agencies as evidence of the continuing contraction of humanitarian space.

This article disputes this claim. Humanitarian aid has been delivered to IDPs from the start of the conflict in June 2011. While international agencies have had a troubled time in doing so, local agencies have effectively navigated a complex political and military environment to ensure consistent delivery of assistance to, and protection of, IDPs. In fact, international organisations have been guilty of defining humanitarian space narrowly: not just as ‘agency space’, but more specifically ‘international agency space’. While international agencies have been preoccupied with their inability to operate freely, local and national humanitarian actors have been busy delivering aid, managing a complex network of camps and skillfully negotiating protection and assistance to IDPs with both warring parties. For these local actors, agency space to provide assistance to IDPs has never been the issue. The main impediment to aid delivery has been a lack of financial and technical support from international agencies.

Background to the Kachin conflict

On 9 June 2011, clashes broke out between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and militia backed by the Myanmar government, breaking a 17-year ceasefire. The fighting took place near a dam being built to provide electricity for China, which is commonly perceived as a symbol of the exploitation of Kachin natural resources by Chinese and Burmese companies. Relations between the central government and Kachin leaders had been deteriorating for months beforehand. The 2009 strategy of the Myanmar government to co-opt ethnic armed groups into Border Guard Forces (BGF) was particularly divisive. This was a bold attempt by the government to wrest military control of its borders from various armed groups. In return, the military agreed to share control of the lucrative (and often illicit) border trade with various ethnic militias. While some groups accepted this offer, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) rejected it, equating it with the surrender of its struggle for autonomy. This generated considerable bad will in the government, to the degree that a Kachin political party, the Kachin State Progressive Party, was barred from competing in the 2010 general elections. Consequently, the nationwide transition towards democracy, welcomed in most parts of the country, has been a bitter experience for people in Kachin, whose hopes for autonomy and participation in national politics have been set back. Subsequently, the KIA remobilised its troops, presaging the resumption of conflict.

The Kachin IDP and refugee crisis

Thousands of people have been displaced by fighting since June 2011. As of June 2012, an estimated 60,000 people have been affected, 25,000 of them located in government-controlled areas and a reported 35,000 or more in KIO areas. There are an additional 7,000 refugees across the border in China. Several thousand people have been displaced in Northern Shan State, which has been made highly unstable by the presence of governmentbacked militias.

The humanitarian situation is complex. The demarcation line between government and KIA forces is constantly in flux, making it difficult to plan operations, and camps have been moved from one location to another. KIA forces have recently resorted to using guerrilla tactics such as roadside explosive devices, which have made main transport routes unsafe. Conflict has escalated as government forces attempt to weed out KIA combatants. Civilians, most of whom are Christian, have taken refuge in Catholic and Baptist church compounds in both government- and KIOcontrolled areas. More than 30 camps have sprung up. Their composition, size and remoteness vary, as do the needs of the people in them.

The positions of both sets of belligerents towards the delivery of aid to displaced civilians have been ambiguous from the beginning. During the first months of the crisis, the Myanmar government refused to grant official authorisation to international aid agencies, before eventually allowing supervised access through convoys. The government’s position on the provision of assistance to IDPs in KIOcontrolled areas (where the vast majority are located) was far more intransigent, and there were deep suspicions that civilians in these areas were sympathetic to the KIA. Even if the central government had allowed direct aid to these areas, this access would still have been contingent upon the agreement of the de facto authority, the KIO. While the KIO has said that it welcomes external aid for IDPs, it has refused to provide any written authorisation. Without formal clearance from all of the belligerents, in the prevailing atmosphere of mistrust and insecurity international agencies were for the most part unwilling to send staff into the area.

Delivering humanitarian assistance

Despite considerable effort, it took six months for the UN team in-country to gain official access to conflict-affected IDPs in KIA-controlled areas. The first convoy of relief items, delivered in December 2011 to the KIA headquarters in Laiza, was facilitated by local civil society organisations, which acted as interlocutors between these international agencies and the KIO, and made their own vehicles and staff members available to facilitate aid distributions. In March 2012, a second convoy carried relief items to remote camps along the border with China. A third convoy was arranged in April and at the time of writing more are expected, though the deteriorating security situation and damage to roads caused by heavy rains have created fresh logistical challenges. It is these delays and restrictions that have fuelled international agencies’ claims that humanitarian space has been denied.

While international agencies were engaging with government officials in high-level talks to increase access, local faith-based NGOs in Kachin and NGOs operating within KIO-controlled areas were providing locally procured food assistance. In the initial weeks, this mainly consisted of private donations by wealthier members of the community. These organisations assumed responsibility for managing the camps, constructing shelters, wells, toilets and dispensaries while delivering regular food aid, hygiene kits and basic education to IDPs on both sides of the frontline. This was achieved through careful negotiation and trust-building with both the Myanmar authorities and the KIO, predicated on three main pillars: undertakings to remain apolitical and to regularly share information on humanitarian needs, and demonstrated capacity to deliver aid effectively. In this they have succeeded from the start of the conflict, safely passing through the checkpoints of both parties and accessing even the most remote camps.

The main impediment to local agencies’ response has been restricted funding and limited technical knowledge of humanitarian relief operations. To mitigate this, local agencies requested both technical and financial support from international NGOs in Kachin State. Local agencies have been working in partnership with INGOs for several years, and key personnel had received relevant training from these international partners prior to the conflict. Others have now been trained in Sphere standards and camp management. In some cases, technical advisors were temporarily deployed from international agencies to work with local agency staff as advisors, particularly on project management, procurement and water, sanitation and hygiene. Although capacity-building is needed, particularly for camp managers in the most remote areas, opportunities to improve operational standards remain scarce. Available funding continues to be monopolised by service delivery interventions.


Should the lack of access to IDPs by international agencies be construed as evidence of a contraction in humanitarian space? If it should, does this matter? In Kachin, the dominant view is that humanitarian space is restricted, and this has influenced key policy decisions. The idea that humanitarian space is absent, particularly in KIO-controlled areas, has until very recently dissuaded international donors and agencies from delivering humanitarian assistance to IDPs. Yet space to provide assistance to IDPs has never been raised as the key problem by local agencies, which have successfully negotiated the delivery of aid with both parties from the very beginning of the conflict. In fact, the main obstacle to the delivery of aid has been the lack of resources and funds. Several local NGOs that initially responded with their own funds and limited INGO support were forced to scale back their operations due to sporadic funding, despite the steady increase in the number of IDPs.

Almost all discussions of humanitarian space in the context of Kachin have focused on international humanitarian agencies gaining access to IDPs in conflict areas. Their mixed record in doing so in the first months of the crisis confirmed for many that space was closed, and this message was relayed to the donor community. This boils the concept of humanitarian space down to how well long-established agencies can perform service delivery. This does a disservice to the plethora of local agencies that are often first responders, and are often better able to navigate the choppy political and military waters that characterise many humanitarian emergencies. In the case of Kachin, for example, church agencies enjoy unparalleled respect and trust, from both belligerents and civilians. There is a responsibility on international agencies and donors to acknowledge this and use it. This means giving greater recognition to local agencies’ place in the broader humanitarian arena, channelling more funds directly to their programmes and helping to improve their technical competence.

Carine Jaquet is an independent analyst based in Myanmar. Conor O’Loughlin is Trócaire’s Humanitarian Response Officer.


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