The Impact of COVID-19 on Humanitarian Access

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    UNU-CPR RESEARCHERS: Dr Rebecca Brubaker, Dr Adam Day, Sophie Huvé

    COVID-19 is having an unprecedented effect on humanitarian planning and operations. The pandemic has served as a “fragility multiplier” creating greater humanitarian needs and complicating issues around access and delivery. COVID-19’s impact is potentially felt across a range of areas, including in-country restrictions, movement into countries, violence against humanitarians, access of people in need of services, and militarized responses by some governments. However, given the swiftly developing situation and often poor in-country national data, insufficient information exists on the various ways COVID-19 may be affecting humanitarian access. The Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom to the United Nations commissioned this research to establish a preliminary evidence base that would bolster existing work by UN agencies and provide a crucial reference point to donors and policymakers as they seek to better support humanitarian endeavours through this time.

    The resulting report, COVID-19 and Humanitarian Access: How the Pandemic Should Provoke Systemic Change in the Global Humanitarian System, examines the pandemic’s impact on humanitarian access and operations. The analysis is based on developments in Colombia, Myanmar, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Yemen. The report finds that the pandemic has contributed to significantly greater humanitarian needs in many settings, alongside a high likelihood of longer-term socioeconomic risks that may push more people into vulnerability. At the same time, a combination of factors has acted against humanitarian access and delivery, including: restrictions of travel into and within countries; quarantining and other restrictions on group activities; increased bureaucratic hurdles by governments and other actors; and a global financial downturn that has reduced overseas spending.

    An important result of these restrictions has been a significant, but potentially temporary, shift of responsibility from some international organizations to local partners, and within international organizations to their local staff. This shift, however, has not been accompanied by a meaningful increase in support for local actors, raising serious questions about the international community’s commitment to the Grand Bargain of the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit and implications for humanitarian access during a crisis. Improving the structural, financial, and cultural relationships between international and national actors has arisen as a key priority in addressing the access challenges posed by COVID-19.

    On the basis of these findings, the report offers ten recommendations for governments, donors, the UN, and local, non-governmental organizations both on improving access but also about prioritizing in a crisis moment.


    This project was commissioned by the Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom to the United Nations. The views in this study do not necessarily represent the official views of the UK Government.