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The Sustainability Principle

Article 8 of the Code declares: “Relief aid must strive to reduce future vulnerabilities to disaster as well as meeting basic needs.” This is the ethical concern for the sustainability of human goods. The Code shows a proper awareness that all humanitarian aid will have wider and longer effects than immediate humanitarian effects alone. Responsibility for these wider and longer effects requires agencies to think how their programmes can function positively and negatively now and in the future. Article 8 identifies positive effects as especially related to creating "sustainable lifestyles”, respecting "environmental concerns”, "reducing future vulnerabilities” and avoiding long-term "dependence upon external aid”.

Because it is thinking long term, this principle is the one most concerned with the consequences of aid. It makes a firm commitment to account for the intended and unintended effects of humanitarian action, recognizing that aid inevitably has a wider impact even when its primary intention is to meet immediate needs. It also makes clear that many of the consequences of aid should be deliberately positive by ensuring that people’s lives are better than they were before the crisis and by helping to prevent future suffering. This ethic is well encapsulated in Bill Clinton’s strapline for tsunami aid: "Build Back Better”. With this vision of lasting improvement and positive consequences in mind, Article 8 requires humanitarians to operate with several horizons in view: now, soon and later. This very consequentialist principle raises two important points in humanitarian ethics: the moral significance of sustainability in humanitarian work, and the limits of humanitarian responsibility for negative outcomes.

If humanitarian ethics is about balancing principles to ensure basic goods in emergencies, then how far can we reasonably expect humanitarian agencies to set goals around multiple and complex goods like the various dimensions of sustainability? Sustainability typically concerns environmental protection, livelihoods and lifestyle, often summarized as the three pillars of sustainability: ecological, economic and social.1 At first glance, this is a much bigger moral project than the principle of humanity’s goal of preserving and protecting the human person in armed conflict and disaster. In view of the scale of long-term problems, does sustainability fall fairly within the scope of humanitarian ethics? The answer must be yes and no. No because humanitarian agencies are not ethically focused on environmental, economic or lifestyle change. This is not their primary intention or their main ethical concern. They cannot be expected to be environmental agencies. Yes because ethics evolve and develop.

New problems arise or a new moral consciousness emerges around things that were once regarded as acceptable (like slavery, racism and misogyny) but are now better understood as unacceptable. Our constant ethical development means that new attitudes and new forms of behaviour become morally significant, creating new duties and new rights. Environmental sustainability is an issue that has rightly achieved new moral significance and now imposes obligations on us all.

This means that humanitarian agencies do have environmental duties without being environmental agencies. These duties are not primary or equal to their humanitarian goal, but they are important subsidiary ethical obligations that should guide the way they work to achieve humanitarian goals. When humanitarian agencies have any contact with the environment, they must take into account reasonable considerations of sustainability. This is particularly true in the way they use energy, consume natural resources and exploit land, or encourage affected populations to do so.

Environmental concerns first impinged upon humanitarian ethics when massive volumes of firewood were consumed in refugee and IDP camps. This dramatically deforested large areas which local people living around these emergency settlements relied upon for their present and future needs. Relief packaging, medical waste and general waste from humanitarian camps were also soon recognized as causing serious problems of pollution. Increasingly, therefore, humanitarian agencies need to think about their energy footprint in their distribution models, particularly around food aid. As cash-based transfers prove equal to or better than direct food deliveries, agencies need to think about how best to reduce intercontinental shipments and increase local purchase, with its shorter supply lines and locally sustainable livelihoods. NGOs should also be helping to pioneer new low-energy vehicles, just as they have already adopted solar power for offices, computers and mobile phones. Greening the humanitarian profession is now rightly a significant part of humanitarian ethics.

The Code is right to point up the ethical significance of economic sustainability too. One of the great insights of humanitarian action in the last twenty years, led by Sue Lautze and others, has been that good humanitarian action should be focused on "saving lives and livelihoods” or "saving lives through livelihoods”.2 This is because one of the best ways to keep people alive with dignity is by preserving the livelihood that sus?tains them physically, socially and economically. This means that humanitarian responsibilities for "creating sustainable lifestyles” are similar but not identical to their environmental responsibilities. Article 8’s concern for "sustainable lifestyles” seems to refer mainly to economic and social sustainability: how a family’s livelihood earns them a living, and how the investment and consumption patterns of this livelihood are able to last over time for one generation without destroying the livelihood of the next generation.

Here, in economic realities, many humanitarian agencies have a very direct moral responsibility for sustainability, because agencies are often deliberately and significantly intervening in people’s economic lives with programmes which aim to recover old livelihoods or invent new ones. In this process, Article 8 asserts that agencies must focus on sustainability by "reducing [people’s] future vulnerabilities” and boosting their capacities to withstand future crises and shocks.3 In areas of earthquake risk, this might mean building stronger housing, advocating for improved land rights, building regulations and safer urban zoning so that when an earthquake strikes next, people are safer than they were before. In a war- induced famine, it may mean supporting pastoralists with improved water points and pre-arranged strategies of livestock de-stocking and marketing to prevent animal deaths, asset depletion and destitution.4 Either way, it means thinking about the future and doing more than saving lives. Inside this emphasis on reducing future vulnerabilities, the moral idea of prevention is nested carefully but silently within the current Code. Article 8 allows for humanitarian action to think both short and longer term, and to focus on sustainability and prevention as well as life-saving.

Obviously, humanitarian agencies can offer the bare essentials. They can just "give a man a fish” if he is hungry, or give someone "a bed for the night” if they are homeless.5 This is often a good thing to do, especially if an agency cannot do more and the people concerned do not need more. But if people need more and an agency can do more, then ethical demands change. Livelihoods rightly enter into the question, the moral horizon is extended and sustainability and prevention become significant moral principles in humanitarian action. Peter Redfield quotes an MSF field coordinator summing up this proper moral shift in Northern Uganda in 2004: "At first the focus is not to die. Then come other questions of living.”6

The future is morally important. Human relationships are such that if I help you now, I retain some residue of responsibility for helping you in the future too. You carry my responsibility with you somehow as a moral asset and it sits with me as a moral liability. In friendship this is routine, as friends call upon each other’s help even if they have not been especially close for several years. In modern commerce, this sustained responsibility often takes contractual form in a five-year guarantee for the car you bought, or a one-month guarantee for the computer you got repaired. Responsibilities have futures and last; obligations thicken with the deepening relationships we have with one another. If aid agencies have been alongside communities for several long years of war, they begin to share a common horizon and try to do things together in the present that will last into the future, like resilience planning and programming.7 Ethics stretch across past, present and future. What we have done and what we are doing with people creates legitimate expectations of what we will do for their future, and what we will do in the future if we are called upon again. People have sustainable claims and obligations. This sense of sustained humanitarian responsibility that stretches into the future seems morally right but cannot be limitless. An agency’s responsibility for people’s futures must always be dependent on an agency’s current capacity and on the relative importance of competing calls on its services in the present. The quintessential example of these limits is the ubiquitous "seeds and tools” rehabilitation package in rural humanitarian programmes. Helping people return to their farming livelihoods after encampment and asset depletion from drought or armed conflict is often as much as an agency can do to engage in a family’s future. Seeds and tools are a very practical moral send-off that takes limited responsibility for the future and plays a minimal role in people’s livelihood sustainability. Often, this is all an agency can reasonably manage. But when it can do more, it should.

The risk of "dependency” so clearly flagged in Article 8 requires special attention because it represents the iconic fear of all helping professions. Actors dread "drying up” on stage and forgetting their words; business people dread running out of money; soldiers dread being found to be a coward in battle; humanitarians dread making people dependent, sapped of initiative and poorer than before. Good helping is about re-empowering people, so if people are disempowered in the humanitarian process and rendered totally dependent on aid, something has gone badly wrong.

Dysfunctional aid dependency is certainly not desirable in humanitarian aid and should be counted as a failure in most instances. But not all dependency is wrong in itself and not every dysfunctional dependency is the fault of humanitarian agencies. Humanitarian scholars distinguish between positive dependency and negative dependency in aid.8 Positive dependency is "when an individual, household or community cannot meet its immediate basic needs without external assistance”.9 This dependency is a good thing if it serves to be "welfare enhancing” and protects people from destitution. It shows aid serving a valuable moral purpose. In countries with no effective health and social services, people are often genuinely and importantly dependent on external aid. For example, children fighting for their lives in an NGO therapeutic feeding centre during a famine or adults being treated for HIV by US-funded retroviral programmes in IDP camps in Northern Uganda are certainly dependent on aid. These situations are a highly functional and morally valuable dependence.

Negative dependency is when "meeting current needs comes at the cost of reducing people’s capacities to meet their own needs now and in the future”.10 This kind of dysfunctional dependence happens when aid creates disincentives for food and labour markets to function effectively, or creates disincentives in individual behaviour that stop people pursuing previous livelihoods because they are not compatible with staying close to aid distributions. Some negative dependency arises because humanitarian practice is just bad. It creates aid magnets that pull people away from their socio-economic networks to isolate them in a recipient-only zone that creates disincentives for more active coping strategies. Without reasonable justification, such practice would be a moral failing.

The risk and fear of dysfunctional and unethical "aid dependency” is probably overblown by anti-aid media pundits and anxious NGOs. The great majority of vulnerable people suffering from armed conflict or disaster do not want to be dependent on a humanitarian organization. Instead, like most of us, they prize financial independence and personal autonomy. People in crisis typically set out to invest actively in a range of survival strategies that function as a sort of coping portfolio for an extended family. This usually involves a division of labour and risk-spreading of some kind. Some members of a family will take a stake in the benefits of a relief camp or regular relief distributions. Others will stay near the family livelihood (the farm, herd, shop or former employer) to try to preserve and leverage opportunities as they arise. Others will travel far to seek migrant work or refugee status. Some people may deviously play the aid system with multiple registrations in a way that is immoral but more entrepreneurial than hopelessly dependent. Most people who have suffered want to get on and recover, and aid is very seldom estimated to make up the major part of an average family’s overall survival strategy.

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