Paper: Understanding Humanitarian Access Obstruction: Evidence from an Original Dataset

Paper details

Paper authors Rob Grace
In panel on The Nexus Between Humanitarian Actors and Authoritarian Practices in Times of Crisis
Paper presenter(s) will be presenting In-Person / Online


What explains how and why international humanitarian organizations (IHOs) sometimes succeed, and sometimes fall short, in their efforts to negotiate unimpeded access during armed conflicts to implement humanitarian relief programs? Social scientists have just begun scraping the surface of this research question. Yet, this question points toward a perplexing empirical puzzle. Some states afflicted by armed conflict have undertaken extensive measures to restrict humanitarian access. In other contexts, IHOs have more successfully negotiated with governments for freedom of movement. This paper proposes that geopolitics play a predominant role in shaping humanitarian access negotiation outcomes. According to this theory, Western-aligned governments should be more prone, as opposed to non-Western-aligned governments, to facilitate humanitarian access for IHOs that are part of the Western-dominated international humanitarian system. This paper lays out and tests this theory, leveraging evidence from an original dataset on humanitarian access obstruction. The dataset was created through analysis of over 5,000 reports on humanitarian action in post-9/11 armed conflicts. The paper also tests alternate explanations—including regime type (democracies versus autocracies), the scale of the conflict, and level of state capacity—drawing from the emerging body of scholarship on humanitarian access, as well as the broader strand of research encompassing combatant behavior in relation to international humanitarian law during armed conflict.