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


There is a significant social science to participation that analyses who you include and how you include them. Article 7 sets out the aspirational principle of striving for "full community participation”. This is rightly ambitious and puts an obligation on humanitarian staff and affected people to work closely together in a wise and effective way that reaps the benefits of people’s dignified inclusion and involvement without becoming bogged down in bureaucratic process or creating isolated humanitarian structures that sideline people from proper and inclusive state governance. This is the careful approach taken in the ALNAP/URD Participation Handbook for Humanitarian Fieldworkers.15

There is a persistent criticism that NGO participation schemes de- politicize people’s real traction on hard mainstream politics by creating soft parallel participation structures that are time-consuming and stand apart from real politics.16 This critique is significant, and the ideal of "full participation” in humanitarian programmes would best involve working towards a model of "active citizenship” of the kind recommended by John Gaventa.17 A citizenship approach keeps people’s participation politically engaged and connected with the duties and obligation of the state and local authorities wherever possible. This is rightly the trend in armed conflicts and disasters where international humanitarian law (IHL) and the development of national and international disaster law makes people’s suffering and recovery a serious political responsibility for governments. There are, of course, important exceptions to the wisdom of mainstreaming humanitarian participation within national politics. When governance is dangerous, genocidal or kleptocratic, it may well be best to set up parallel humanitarian structures that buffer and protect people from their government. In certain situations, the most dangerous thing you can do to a community is to connect it with its government.

In medical and business ethics, the principle of consent has become increasingly important as a means and measure of people’s active involvement in medical and business decisions that affect their lives. The principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) is one that could usefully contribute to the principle of participation in humanitarian ethics.18 The key ingredients of the FPIC process would suit humanitarian operations especially at a stage when full participation is not feasible. In an FPIC process, first an individual or group’s consent must be free and not forced. In line with Article 7, therefore, people could not have aid programmes or strategies "imposed” upon them.19 Secondly, the process of consent cannot be retroactive but must precede humanitarian action as much as possible so that people can be involved prior to and before things happen. Thirdly, people need to be properly informed of the purpose and process of humanitarian programmes if they are to consent meaningfully. Many agencies constantly pursue active FPIC strategies (whether consciously or unconsciously) in vaccination programmes, family tracing programmes, food and cash transfers and protection work. It may be useful to formalize consent (and its free, prior and informed conditions) as a firm part of humanitarian ethics. Consent is obviously not full participation but it is an important part of it and may be an essential ethical principle in periods of humanitarian activity that cannot reasonably achieve full participation.

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