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Independence as Humanitarian Autonomy

With his usual precision, Pictet puts his finger on autonomy as the key ethical ingredient in independence. Autonomy is essentially the power to choose and act for oneself, the right of self-government. Pictet emphasizes the importance of maintaining humanitarian autonomy from government, in particular to avoid becoming "mere tools of officialdom, only in the service of government policy”. His concern about humanitarian autonomy in the 1960s is similar in urgency to current early-twentyfirst-century concerns from Mark Duffield, Antonio Donini and others about the "instrumentalization” of humanitarian action by warring parties, Western counter-insurgency and Western liberalism in recent humanitarian policy and practice.21

Humanitarian autonomy and its resulting freedom to act in line with a purely humanitarian goal and methodology are essential if humanitarian action is to have operational integrity. In armed conflicts and disasters, there are a range of outside forces who may be willing and able to compromise humanitarian autonomy from a local, national and international level. These may be: local leaders of vulnerable communities; political, military and welfare representatives of warring parties; politicians seeking re-election after a disaster; or donor governments funding humanitarian aid. Any of these parties may deliberately or unconsciously attempt to influence, infiltrate, co-opt, restrict or coerce a humanitarian agency in such a way that humanitarian autonomy is lost, and with it impartiality and neutrality.

Article 4 of the Code of Conduct is the independence article in the Code. It is explicit about resisting undue influence from any government and is particularly concerned to ensure that humanitarian agencies avoid becoming "instruments” of the foreign policy of their donor governments. However, Article 4 says nothing about local parties and power structures that may unduly influence humanitarian action. This silence may well represent the ambiguities that many agencies face when working in partnership with local organizations and groups. The common NGO strategy of working through partners may mean that NGOs realistically feel unable to adopt full independence as well as full neutrality.

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