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Home arrow Sociology arrow Humanitarian ethics : a guide to the morality of aid in war and disaster



This book is about the ethics of humanitarian action: the values that drive it; the moral problems that arise in doing it; and the various ways in which humanitarian organizations and their staff can think through these problems to become more professional and accountable in their ethical decisions.

Humanitarian action is a compassionate response to extreme and particular forms of suffering arising from organized human violence and natural disaster. At any moment, in any day, somewhere in the world a person is suffering from the violence of armed conflict or the devastation of disaster. As surely as this person is suffering, it is equally certain that someone will be trying to help them. First and foremost, this helper is usually a member of their family, a neighbour, or a friend. But, increasingly, this helper may be a professional humanitarian of some kind: a Red Cross or Red Crescent volunteer; a member of a religious organization; a local government official; a United Nations worker; somebody working for a national or international non-governmental organization (NGO); or someone in the military working as a peacekeeper or in a disaster response team. This book aims to help these various professional workers as they try to deliver humanitarian aid respectfully and fairly in difficult conditions.

In 2013, expenditure on international humanitarian aid rose to a record $22 billion and reached 78 million people around the world.1 Alongside Red Cross and UN agencies, there are an estimated 4,400 NGOs carrying out humanitarian programmes of some kind and 274,000 humanitarian workers around the world.2 This significant expansion in humanitarian action as a form of international relations and as an increasingly ordered part of nascent global governance requires that this growing sector and profession is ethically aware and ethically skilled.

Humanitarian action is about respecting, protecting and saving human life. At its best, it is a very practical affirmation of the value of human life and its unique character in each human person. Trying to help someone who is suffering is a fundamental gesture of care. It shows that we feel something very precious in our own lives and so recognize this preciousness in the lives of other people too. Wanting to help someone reveals that they mean something important to us. We want them to stay alive because they are valuable. We believe that the destruction of a person is a tragedy that must be prevented, and we also believe that people can live through and after suffering. Their life may be changed forever by damage, loss and pain, but we hold that renewal of life and some form of fulfilment are possible after war and disaster.

Trying to help other people is a very good thing to do, but it is not always an easy thing to do. Because it is difficult, helping can go wrong. Helping people requires some kind of access to them and a certain freedom of operation. More than this, helping people well takes knowledge, skill and resources. It also requires a counter-intuitive move towards cooperation rather than control. Good help enables a person or a community to remain the subject of their lives, not objects in the lives and purposes of others. Good humanitarian action makes people its goal but does not objectify them as “beneficiaries” or commodify them as “recipients” of aid. On the contrary, good humanitarian aid and protection increase people’s autonomy and agency as human beings. The best humanitarian action is that which respects people and works with them to prevent suffering, repair harm, and enable them to come through their suffering and flourish.

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