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Collective Action

Interestingly, the local capacity principle in Article 6 of the Code of Conduct also contains the ethical principle of collective action: "we will place a high priority on the proper coordination of our emergency responses”. This should really be extracted as a separate principle in humanitarian ethics.

Collective action is an important principle in ethics because it places a moral requirement on people in any common activity to optimize their various resources in search of the common goods they seek. They should do this by coordinating activities, pooling resources, avoiding duplication, maximizing coverage and presenting a stronger counter-force to opponents. Sometimes this means reducing an agency’s own individual ambitions and empire-building in the service of better collective action.4 In protection work, the benefits of collective action have been encouraged in the somewhat clunky principle of “complementarity”. This recognizes the importance of agencies with different mandates playing to their vertical strengths in different sectors (like health, water, advocacy, settlement design) but working together horizontally to achieve complementary results that bring wider protection benefits to civilians than if they each worked separately.5

Achieving effective collective action or complementarity is one of the greatest difficulties in humanitarian action. Discussed mainly as the problem of coordination, it has rightly been an object of obsession, reform and despair among humanitarian professionals and policy-makers. The most recent structural reforms have involved the development of inter-agency sectoral clusters that have been supposedly enhanced by the so-called “transformative agenda” led by UNOCHA and the Interagency Standing Committee.6 More widely, it is a major problem in international relations and all forms of emergency management and welfare programmes. But its difficulty and occasional complexity does not detract from its ethical importance. The importance of acting cooperatively and organizing a “moral division of labour”7 remains a major moral obligation, because it is often only when we combine resources that we achieve critical mass. A series of unrelated acts by individual agencies may only ever make a marginal contribution, but if they are joined up and strategized more widely, these same resources could have a much greater aggregate effect. In his thinking on the ethics of collective action, Christopher Kutz recognizes a two-tiered structure of obligations in any collective action of rescue and mutual aid: a vertical obligation between the claimant who is in need and the potential donor; and a horizontal obligation between the wider group of potential donors who must pool and prioritize their aid in the best way to ensure its fair and effective redistribution.8 Agencies must work to and be accountable to both obligations.

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