Humanitarian Space Forum, where are we now?

Participants in the FEH from 28 to 30 April 2022 at the Fondation Mérieux in Annecy.

Alain Boinet : Following the 9th Humanitarian Space Forum (Forum Espace Humanitaire, FEH) that has just taken place, can you remind us of the reasons that led to its creation in 2011, how it is organised and what was at stake in the recent Forum that took place from 28 to 30 April at the Fondation Mérieux in Annecy?

Benoit Miribel :A convergence of factors led to the creation of the Humanitarian Space Forum (HSF) in 2009.

I am thinking in particular of the abolition of the High Council for International Cooperation (HCCI) in 2007, which encouraged us to give ourselves the means to continue our monthly meetings by our own means. This will lead to the formalisation of the Groupe de Réflexion Urgence et Post-Crise (GRUPC) in 2008. I am also thinking of the post-tsunami context with contradictory positions taken by MSF and most humanitarian organisations including the Red Cross. This made us question the value of humanitarian leaders sharing some of our concerns and analyses in a constructive way, without the media. There were also many debates at the time with the UN’s desire to reform the organisational framework for global humanitarian action, notably with a cluster approach. I am also thinking, of course, of the report commissioned in 2009 by Bernard Kouchner on humanitarian action and its challenges. Through the analyses and recommendations made at the time, it undeniably created a new dynamic for collaboration between humanitarian actors and public partners.

A few details perhaps to explain how these 3 factors, which are not exhaustive, contributed to the emergence of the Humanitarian Space Forum (HSF).

It is clear that the abolition of the High Council for International Cooperation (HCCI) in 2007, under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, made us want to continue to meet every month to pursue the dynamic that we had developed in this forum. I inherited the chairmanship of this 12th HCCI Commission dedicated to Emergency and Post-Crisis, as General Director of Action Contre la Faim, from Michel Brugière (General Director of Médecin du Monde). Faced with the closure of the HCCI, several of us wanted to continue meeting. So we decided to meet each month in turn in one of our organisations. I remember that among the pillars of this dynamic were Anne Héry, Philippe Ryfman, Stéphanie Daniel-Genc, Martin Spitz, Jean-Bernard Véron and Gisèle, my assistant, who ensured the good organisation of our meetings, which over time led to the creation of the Groupe de Réflexion Urgence et Post-Crise (GRUPC).

This dynamic contributed to the emergence of the EHF in 2009 because beyond the monthly meetings during which we shared humanitarian news and issues, there was no shortage of topics. We were in a post-tsunami context in which a controversy had arisen: could we qualify this natural disaster context as a humanitarian priority? MSF’s position was rather clear-cut at the time and did not match that of most French humanitarian organisations. Some may remember the tension on prime time television the day after the Tsunami, between Action Contre la Faim President, Jean-Christophe Rufin, and Jean-Hervé Bradol, then President of MSF, who felt he had no business intervening in this context. Jean-François Mattei’s book “L’humanitaire durable” (Sustainable Humanitarianism) led Philippe Ryfman to ask me to meet him to discuss the interest of a Humanitarian Forum. At the end of the 1990s, when Philippe Ryfman was director of the Humanitarian Master’s programme at the Sorbonne and I was director of Bioforce, we had launched a series of conferences on the ethics of humanitarian action (Etikuma). For example, in the 1999 conference, we discussed the issue of codes of conduct in humanitarian action. Following those promoted by the ICRC, there was debate about those proposed by SPHERE and in France, Groupe URD was rather opposed to this approach and proposed the COMPAS tool. In short, as we can see, the 2000s were a time when many issues were at stake, particularly in relation to what was known as humanitarian space. There was nothing spatial about it, but rather the ability to access the field was becoming increasingly difficult in many contexts, which is still a major issue today.

Benoit Miribel at the FEH podium introducing the session on partnership in Ukraine.

During the meeting with Jean-François Mattei and Philippe Ryfman, I remember that it was regretted that the French Red Cross was in a kind of isolation from French humanitarian NGOs. Especially as the practices and issues were similar in terms of international operations. Jean-François Mattei was very clear about his desire for openness. I was able to talk about the Centre des Pensières where Charles Mérieux, whom he had known well, would occasionally bring together in the 1990s a few people involved in international health and humanitarian action to discuss it informally over a weekend. For example, I met Jacques Lebas, who had founded the Institut de l’Humanitaire and with whom I had been asked to present a report on the ‘humanitarian market’ in 1996. We concluded the lunch by deciding to survey the humanitarian leaders on the interest of an informal meeting, away from the daily routine, to allow them to discuss their problems in a friendly and interpersonal setting.

When I was able to present to Alain Mérieux the possibility of launching a Humanitarian Space Forum in the Centre des Pensières, with Jean-François Mattei and Philippe Ryfman as co-organisers, he immediately approved. He was with us again last April for the last session of the FEH which continues to be supported by Fondation Mérieux, Fondation de France, the Red Cross Fund and several humanitarian NGOs gathered in the Strategic Orientation Council. Various recognised experts as well as representatives of the State, UN agencies, the European Commission, other governments and companies regularly participate, but only as guests.

These are just some of the factors that have contributed to the emergence of the EHF.

A.B. : Among the themes of this 9th edition, you discussed the recent European Humanitarian Forum held in Brussels in March. What can you tell us about it in broad terms?

Anne Héry : The Humanitarian Space Forum was held just after the European Humanitarian Forum, the first event of its kind, initiated under the French Presidency of the European Union. It therefore seemed natural to begin our discussions with an assessment of this European Forum.

In a context of increasing humanitarian needs, shrinking resources and increasing constraints on humanitarian access, it is good to see Europe putting humanitarian issues at the heart of its agenda. The means and ambition of the Forum, the presence of a large number of ministers reaffirming their commitment to respect for International Humanitarian Law and humanitarian principles at the closing session send a strong and positive signal.

Obviously, the proliferation of issues addressed and the lack of representation of professionals in the field led to results that can be considered disappointing. There were no very concrete announcements apart from the Donors’ Declaration on Climate and Environment and the launch of a European humanitarian logistics capacity. NGOs were particularly unimpressed with the impact of sanctions regimes and counter-terrorism policies on humanitarian aid, a major barrier to access and respect for humanitarian principles. The introduction of humanitarian exemptions was affirmed as a necessity by all actors throughout the discussions, without any concrete commitment to real implementation emerging, all against the backdrop of the tug of war between NGOs and the French government over the sensitive issue of screening of final beneficiaries.

But the momentum is there and the European Humanitarian Forum will now be held every year. The next one will take place in 2023 under the Swedish presidency and will focus on three themes: climate, the expansion of resources and the quality of funding.

Jean-Yves Le Drian described Europe as a “humanitarian power”. NGOs must do everything in their power to ensure that this stated ambition is translated into an increase in the resources allocated to an impartial humanitarian response, and not into an increased politicisation of aid.

A.B. : Among the major topics discussed at the Forum were Afghanistan and the lessons for humanitarians, as well as Ukraine and the cooperation between civil society and international humanitarian actors. What are the lessons from Afghanistan and thoughts on partnership in Ukraine?

Philippe Ryfman :

1°) Afghanistan

There are many lessons for humanitarian organisations to learn from their long presence in Afghanistan [some since the Soviet invasion in 1979, others since the international intervention in 2001]. The exchanges during the FSH also showed their complexity and their often chrono-centric character. None of them really stands out, because they are constantly being questioned. For example, the approach that seemed to prevail for a long time of negotiating humanitarian access on a decentralised basis, or even district by district, with – in particular – local Taliban commanders, has shown its limits. Since the return of the Taliban to power in August 2021, the humanitarian situation has continued to deteriorate. NGOs and UN humanitarian agencies continue to maintain an effective presence in the country. However, while the needs are considerable, the range of activities carried out is narrowing. Even if the funding of humanitarian aid by the major public donors persists, at least in part.

The increasingly effective domination within the Taliban political space of the most radical faction accentuates the hostility of most of the international community [mainly aid donors] and thus the isolation of the regime. Contrary to what was assumed, the security conditions for humanitarian work remain precarious, especially with the rise of armed groups affiliated to the Islamic State and the increase in attacks committed by them. Similarly, the difficulty of recruiting new Afghan staff for operations – to replace those who have fled the country since 2021 – is increasing. Moreover, it is now impossible to hire female staff. From this point of view too, the situation of women under the new regime, the loss of all their rights and the oppression of which they are victims (contrary to the hopes of “moderation” that the Doha agreement had raised) places NGOs in a contradiction – which is becoming increasingly difficult to manage – with regard to the humanitarian principles and values on which they base their action. This is true both in the field in Afghanistan, but also in relation to their staff elsewhere and at headquarters, as well as in relation to civil society in their countries of origin.

2°) Ukraine

The surprise and shock caused by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine on 24 February 2022 did not spare humanitarian actors. Despite the fact that NGOs and the ICRC had been present in Donbass since 2014 on both sides of the front line.

The humanitarian community was in no way prepared for this irruption of a high-intensity conflict on the international scene. In fact, the central theme of this year’s FSH had – in a way – anticipated this issue. It was intended to question humanitarians on the return of this type of conflict and their adaptation to such a situation. For several decades, armed confrontations have been no less deadly than inter-state wars. But non-international armed conflicts, qualified as medium or low intensity, involving – most often – more or less structured armed groups and militias. However, the Russian invasion and the Ukrainian defence and response have the characteristics of a “total war”, with the use of all kinds of weapons systems, means of mass destruction, mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of fighters, deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure, numerous acts of violence…

Humanitarian action quickly focused – mainly – on helping refugees fleeing the country for various European nations. As well as those targeting the very large number of internally displaced persons in Ukraine. However, the repertoire of operations of humanitarian organisations was quickly constrained by exogenous factors, which humanitarian actors were no longer used to. Thus, in the countries hosting the refugees, they did not always easily find an effective axis of intervention in the face of solid and properly functioning state systems for taking care of and helping exiles (despite the masses of people concerned). The same applies to the numerous initiatives emanating from the civil societies of the States concerned. Secondly, in Ukraine, the state is by no means absent, and in no way “failed”. On the contrary, the administration and its various components are functioning in all parts of the country. Similarly, Ukrainian civil society is more than consistent and the war has only strengthened its involvement in all areas, including the humanitarian one.

Since then – for actions carried out in the territories under the authority of the Kyiv government – partnerships with Ukrainian NGOs, other civil society organisations, health institutions (particularly hospitals), communities, etc. have become systematic. Much more so than in other war zones where it is not always easy to set up.

However, in this deadly conflict which – apart from its international aspects – constitutes a real “war of independence”, certain humanitarian organisations seem to have difficulty finding the right position, beyond the material and financial support and sometimes human resources provided to Ukrainian partners. Especially as – due to the Russian ban – they cannot be present on the side of each belligerent. Secondly, the scale of the fighting (especially the bombing) on the front lines – which in any case have been declared “areas under exclusive military control” – makes it de facto impossible to access them. Likewise, assistance to military or civilian combat casualties is provided by local doctors and hospitals, as well as the Ukrainian army’s health services. Similarly, for prisoners of war or detained civilians, no access is possible on the Russian side and their situation – to date at least – is a “black hole”. From the Kyiv side, the number of Russian prisoners, while not negligible, does not seem to be massive and there do not seem to be any detention camps for war prisoners, the latter being – apparently – interned within the local penitentiary system. The latter seems to provide for their needs. Finally, in the few prisoner exchanges that have taken place between the belligerents, humanitarian actors have played only a marginal role, if not completely excluded.

A detailed analysis of these positioning difficulties can only be carried out – naturally – at a later stage in the post-conflict period with the necessary hindsight. However, it will certainly provide valuable information and help anticipate future high-intensity wars, which humanitarian organisations will have to face in the coming years.


A.B. : This Forum was very rich and diverse. You proposed to reflect together specifically on the environmental challenges faced by humanitarians in their work and to do a review of the magazine Alternatives Humanitaires. What can you tell us about the debates on these subjects?

Karine Meaux :

1°) On the environmental challenges

After a few months marked by the health crisis and conflicts, the Humanitarian Space Forum wanted to review the collective progress on environmental issues. The meeting noted that these issues are now well integrated into the thinking of humanitarian organisations, whether it is a question of reducing their carbon footprint or of prevention, protection and adaptation capacities for the populations targeted by their actions. More collectively, these organisations have drawn up several documents since 2020: the Declaration of Commitment of Humanitarian Organisations on Climate, carried by the Humanitarian Environment Network and signed by 10 NGOs; the Charter on Climate and Environment for Humanitarian Organisations, developed by the International Committee and the Red Cross Federation; the Humanitarian Aid Donors’ Declaration on Climate and Environment, developed by the Climate and Humanitarian Working Group, which brings together representatives of NGOs and foundations, the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Ecological Transition and AFD.

Discussions focused on how to make these documents live: For example, ICVA proposes participatory workshops on the Charter. The participants also outlined work prospects for the coming months – defining indicators to measure progress in the application of these commitments, continuing advocacy at all levels, developing a more ecosystem-based approach, better integrating global health dynamics, etc.

2°) About the magazine Alternatives Humanitaires

Since the publication of its inaugural issue in February 2016, the journal Alternatives Humanitaires has published some twenty issues systematically in French and English. It has built its legitimacy on articles of a consistent calibre which allow both actors wishing to develop their thinking and researchers satisfied with addressing a wider audience while leaving the restrictive framework of their professional publications. In addition to the paper publication, the journal relies on a website and dematerialized distribution networks and is completed by online events, conferences…

The assessment carried out in 2022 highlights the success of the multi-partner (universities, NGOs, media, etc.) and international model. In order to be even more effective and relevant, discussions are underway on opening up the economic model (currently concentrated on funding a dozen foundations and NGOs), developing partnerships (particularly with foreign universities) and optimising digital media.

This new impetus will help humanitarian actors to take a step back, anticipate changes and identify ways of dealing with the problems that our organisations will inevitably face in the coming years.

The great organising team of the FEH and the magazine Alternatives Humanitaires.

A.B. : At the end of the Forum, you presented a broad overview of the international environment and the ideas and debates, if not the ideologies, which run through it and which challenge the humanitarian sector. To get to the heart of the matter, can you share your vision on this subject? 

Jean-François Mattéi : Humanitarian action is always based on universal values such as generosity and solidarity. These are the values that drive the commitment to serve the most fragile and vulnerable. For this reason, international humanitarian action has long differed from social action in our country only in terms of the geographical and societal context of the different countries concerned. For many years, the quality of the aid provided to the population was enough to establish a relationship of trust between the “humanitarians” and the local people. But over time, relations have gradually changed. The feeling of identity and independence has changed the way people view humanitarian action. Medical practice helps to understand this evolution because it has encountered the same difficulties in the face of an asymmetrical relationship between the doctor and the patient that has gradually become unbearable. It took the Law of March 4th 2002 on the rights of the sick, which refers to the four main principles of medical ethics (autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence and justice) for the relationship between carers and patients to be greatly improved. The same ethical reflections have become more frequent in humanitarian action in recent years, and ethics should be better taught in practice to serve as a guide in the “carer-care receiver” partnership. It is also important to distinguish between situations of war with the principles of impartiality and neutrality, and natural disasters, which can be part of a sustainable action with local populations, because they have different imperatives. When it comes to long-term actions, after ethics, the humanitarian actor must also be aware of the movements of thought which are developing all over the world and which constitute what is known as “postmodern thought”.

Whereas classical thought aimed at transmitting tradition, with reference to the past, the Enlightenment dethroned God and religion to build the future of man through reason and science. Alas, during the Second World War, reason was lost in Auschwitz and science allowed Hiroshima. This double betrayal of Man by Man condemns the construction of a future that can no longer be trusted. Only the present remains to be happy. From then on, postmodern thinking with individualism, temporality reduced to the moment, the deconstruction of racism into racialism as well as the fluidity of gender have favoured new debates at the origin of “wokism” including decolonialism and indigenism. Clearly, the humanitarian sector cannot ignore the ins and outs of these new ways of thinking which are developing in public opinion. They can profoundly change the relationship between those working in the field and the people who benefit from their aid. It would be useful to develop the subject further. Indeed, the legitimacy of some of the questions asked is real from different perspectives, but the answers must be discussed when they can lead to a kind of mutual exclusion, an erasure of the past (removal of statues) or a forever irreconcilable incomprehension. How can we talk about racism, colonisation, the domination of a model, with the constant concern for the necessary consultation, involvement and recognition of distinct identities without promoting a ‘woke’ ideology that also denies what is right in universalism?

Further resources:

Benoit Miribel

President of the French Centre for Funds and Foundations (CFF) since June 2015. He is also the Secretary General of the Foundation “A Sustainable Health for All” launched in June 2020 and is the President of the Humanitarian Logistics Platform “Bioport”. He has been a member of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (EESC) since May 2021 and is the rapporteur on the Europe of Health. He was previously Director of Public Health at Institut Mérieux (2018-2020) and Director General of Fondation Mérieux (2007-2017). Since June 2013, he has been Honorary President of Action contre la Faim (ACF).

Anne Héry

After several years at the OECD, she joined the NGO Handicap International as a delegate in Paris, in charge of the link with associative networks and public authorities. Between 2010 and 2013, she was Director of External Relations and Advocacy at Secours Islamique France. She is currently Director of Advocacy and Institutional Relations for the Handicap International – Humanity & Inclusion Federation. As part of her work, she has travelled in the field in Africa, Asia and the Middle East to collect data and produce advocacy materials. She has been involved in different networks and coalitions to advocate for disarmament and protection of civilians, humanitarian action or disability inclusive development policies.


Phillipe Ryfman

Doctor in political science and a graduate in private law, he is a professor and honorary associate researcher at the Department of Political Science and the European Centre for Sociology and Political Science of the Sorbonne (CESSP-Sorbonne), University of Paris I, Panthéon-Sorbonne. He directed the DESS and then the Master’s degree in “International Cooperation, Humanitarian Action and Development Policies” (CIAHPD) at this university. Today, he pursues research activities on non-governmental and humanitarian issues, notably as an associate researcher at the Canadian Observatory on Crisis and Humanitarian Action (OCCAH), UQAM, Montreal.


Karine Meaux

In charge of humanitarian and international issues at the Fondation de France, Karine Meaux supervises programmes targeting local organisations in areas as diverse as West Africa and the Maghreb, the West Indies and Haiti, Lebanon and Syria, and more recently Ukraine and its neighbouring countries.



Jean-François Mattéi

J.-F. Mattei is professor emeritus of pediatrics-genetics and medical ethics. He is a member of the Academy of Medicine, which he chaired in 2020, and a member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences of the Institut de France. A former Minister of Health, Family and the Disabled (2002-2004), he chaired the French Red Cross and was on the governance of the IFRC in Geneva from 2004 to 2013. He created the French Red Cross Foundation in 2013. Author of novels and numerous essays (medicine, ethics, humanitarian). Co-founder of the FEH and the magazine Alternatives Humanitaires.


Virginie Troit is a member of the FEH organising committee. She was unable to contribute to this interview due to ongoing academic work.