How strong is the evidence base about the effects of (the perception of) humanitarian neutrality on outcomes for civilians in armed conflicts? Specifically, identify the quantity and quality of multi-case or general evidence available on whether neutrality in humanitarian action has facilitated access or other positive outcomes for civilians. If relevant, identify the evidence base about key intermediate variables between neutrality and outcomes.
This rapid review searched literature published in 2005-2015, focusing on multi-case and general studies.
- Literature is very limited quantitatively and qualitatively.
- Evidence that meets minimal standard of methodological rigour is
scant. A sizeable segment of it comes from a small number of sources.
Methods are largely qualitative and based on secondary sources. There
are no meta-reviews. Findings are inconsistent and only indicative.
- There are significant thematic gaps in coverage. In particular, local
humanitarians and perceptions are under-researched. A few country draw
the most discussion, while entire regions are not discussed. There is
barely any disaggregation by social structures, such as class, gender
Available evidence brings up the following themes:
- Setting neutrality as an object of study is challenging. Definitions
and their interpretations differ. There are debates about which actors
qualify as neutral.
- Designing studies is challenging. Neutrality is present in claims of
principle, in practices, and in perceptions. Very few references are
clear and consistent in taking into account that distinction. Yet
there are significant differences between humanitarian actors’
attempts to be neutral and local populations’ perceptions of these.
- Operationalising studies involves complex work on humanitarian actors’
motivation, intentional and unintentional impact, and public as well
as confidential action. The level of analysis and the generalizability
of findings are important challenges.
- Causalities are difficult to establish and attribute. Overall, the few
rigorous findings are contradictory, ranging from positive effects,
mixed or variable effects, and negative effects, to a lack of major
effects (where alternative determinants seemingly play a greater role
Combaz, E. Evidence on effects of humanitarian neutrality on outcomes for civilians (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1218). Governance and Social Development Resource Centre, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK (2015) 13 pp.