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Respect Culture and Custom

Article 5 states that "We shall respect culture and custom”. It is the shortest article of the Code and its explanation only runs to another two lines: "We will endeavour to respect the culture, structures and customs of the communities and countries we are working in.”

Although short on text, this principle is long on implication. At first glance, it reads like sound moral common sense hedged carefully within an aspirational principle by the conditional word "endeavour”. This tentative element to the principle—that we will try but not always succeed in respecting culture and custom—reflects an operational pragmatism in emergency work. This pragmatism retains the moral right to sometimes prioritize humanitarian speed over cultural respect. It rightly suggests that it may occasionally be necessary just to get on and do things very directly in moments of extreme emergency, when there is no time for village meetings or when the sudden arrival of large groups of humanitarian workers in a slum or rural area may leave little time for the proper courtesies of introductions, permissions and agreements on local norms. Such initial expediency is sometimes legitimate, but any initial deficit of respect or violations of local custom must always be made good as soon as possible by apology, reparation and new commitments.

The fundamental concern of this principle is certainly correct. It is morally right to respect people’s diversity and their freedom to organize their culture and society in a particular way.1 A secondary moral concern here is the desire not to cause offence. In order to prevent hurting people by offending them, it is right that humanitarian agency staff should be ready to wear trousers, long skirts, sleeves and scarves if this is the culture of dress in a particular society. Likewise, humanitarian workers should have meetings sitting under trees and not around tables where this is the norm, so that people may be granted the dignity of their own space and speaking conventions. Humanitarian workers should be ready to show deference to local people on important community issues. For example, humanitarian workers should give up alcohol in a place where it is forbidden and abide by the sexual customs of the society in which they are living and working if love affairs or pre-marital sex are firmly restricted or pursued only in private with discretion. Such respect makes good sense in order to recognize people’s rights to be different and their freedom to choose the particular nature of their own society. The basic moral norm in such decisions is the rightful concern not to cause harm by giving offence, and to show respect for freedom, diversity and autonomy in human society.

But, of course, there is an ethical minefield below the simple moral principle of not giving offence to people who behave differently to you. Cultural differences are of various kinds. Some are just aesthetic differences in clothing, music and cuisine. But other aspects of cultural difference may embody deep moral differences that are serious and ethically challenging. Respecting a taboo on alcohol is not morally problematic, because it does not pose a grave restriction on a fundamental freedom or a basic human right. Indeed, it might be beneficial. Most different clothing rules would be similarly morally benign. Indeed, adopting local dress may become a moral duty if it helps to increase acceptance and humanitarian access. However, a culture that is sexist or misogynistic and only involves men in humanitarian decision-making, or which gives preference to male children in emergency food distributions, would conflict with fundamental rights and freedoms and become ethically problematic. To respect this culture and its structures would be to become complicit in wrongful acts and would breach absolute principles of humanity and impartiality as well as important human rights. Cooperation with such structures and customs would require significant justification on grounds of a greater good if it were to be pursued by any agency. Normally, these customs would need to be challenged.

Cultural differences regularly pose questions of appropriate sexual morality and business ethics in humanitarian operations. For example, in many societies cultures of prostitution are commonly accepted and widely practised. Some humanitarian workers may pay for adult sex workers in their free time and justify their choice because it is "normal here”. In some cultures, girls in their teens are customarily encouraged to seek older sexual partners as an acceptable rite of passage in their sexual education before marriage, or as "sugar daddies” for the benefit of their social and educational advancement.2 Aid workers may decide to play these roles. In many countries, conditions are also more extreme and girls are recruited into prostitution before they are eighteen years old and have reached the internationally agreed age of adulthood. Many are forcefully recruited against their will. Bribery and corruption are other areas of political and commercial morality that can also be seen as cultural or customary. In many societies that lack effective governance, proper salaries and a strong tax base, people are required to pay bribes for public services, political access and business opportunities. Humanitarian agencies are regularly challenged by corrupt practices which would be culturally taboo in other parts of the world but which operate as norms in many societies. Humanitarian workers rightly find ethical problems in respecting these kinds of customary sexual and commercial customs. They may seriously conflict with their own personal morality and often involve exploitation, abuse of power or an outright violation of a person’s freedom and rights. In addition to the wrongs humanitarian workers bring about by engaging in such practices, there are also strong prudential reasons to avoid them because they can bring an agency into disrepute. This can damage an agency’s wider humanitarian capability, which undermines the main moral purpose of a humanitarian worker’s presence and role in any community.

It is also important to recognize that not every custom that happens in a society is generally acceptable within that society, even if it is widespread. Because something is customary does not mean that it is right. If it were, then slavery, infanticide and female genital mutilation would be considered moral goods, which they are not. Not every social, sexual, political or commercial practice is properly understood as an agreed and acceptable custom or culture in a society where they are prevalent. Bribery or child prostitution may be common practice, but most people in that society might not choose them to be so and might recognize that they involve great harm. Ethically, such things are better recognized as harmful practices not customs, and humanitarian workers should be careful not to seek dubious cultural justifications for wrongdoing.

Another ethical clash emerges in sexual ethics when local custom places a moral taboo on something which global norms and rights agree to be a moral norm. Homosexuality is currently the most obvious case in point. Some groups and governments within certain societies regard homosexuality as morally wrong. Yet most humanitarian agencies with liberal roots will agree with the conviction of modern human rights that sexual orientation is a matter of personal freedom and that any negative treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people (LGBT) is discrimination and a violation of their rights. Liberal humanitarian agencies want to welcome and recruit LGBT people equally and would not consider it immoral if their employees are in same-sex relationships or have a transgender identity.

In such situations, it seems clear that a humanitarian agency should pursue its non-discriminatory policy with conviction, but also with reasonable discretion and practical wisdom. It would not be wise or right for an agency to put LGBT employees in harm’s way in an operational context that is hostile to homosexuality and transgender identities. Agencies would be bound to protect LGBT staff as much as possible from such risks by careful and consensual deployment choices or by policies of discretion agreed in advance and monitored on the ground, especially where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by prison or death. In an explicitly humanitarian context where LGBT people are being deliberately discriminated against and targeted in an armed conflict or disaster, then humanitarian agencies would need to confront this strategy explicitly as inhumane and a violation of humanitarian and human rights law. Agencies also have an obligation to protect LGBT employees, as they do so.

These deeper problems of custom and cultural difference are glossed over in the minimal formulation of humanitarian ethics as it currently stands. Its emphasis on respect for individual difference and social diversity is well made when it poses no risk of a serious moral breach. But the Code of Conduct remains vague about how to determine a genuine clash of values and how to identify something as a benign or positive custom rather than a morally regrettable practice. In short, humanitarian ethics needs to be clear when a cultural difference is in fact a significant moral difference. In such situations, humanitarian agencies and their staff should avoid or confront what they deem to be wrongful practices.

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