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Effectiveness and Everyday Ethics

The fundamental humanitarian principles described above define the particular role responsibility of humanitarian professionals. But there are also several generic principles of professionalism that apply to any human activity carried out in the public interest. These general principles of good management are about being effective as well as moral. Results matter in ethics as it is not enough just to be caring and humanitarian. You must be caring and humanitarian to the best of your ability. Managerial principles include personal integrity and a strong professional ethic of doing things to the highest possible standard in the best interests of the people you serve. This is, above all, a question of professional competence.

If people’s lives depend on a profession, it is important that the people in this profession take both the efficiency and effectiveness of their operations very seriously. In humanitarian action, as in many other professions, it is unethical to manage operations badly. Failures of efficiency and effectiveness that are the fault of an organization itself (rather than circumstances beyond its control) can have predictable and harmful consequences for people. These failures need to be investigated when they happen and then corrected with a combination of good leadership and management. The whole of the Sphere Standards—its core standards and specific technical standards—make clear what high-quality humanitarian action looks like in practice. In addition to Sphere, most agencies have set their own internal standards of technical response for their own specialism and specific standards of good management. This process of good management is all part of the everyday ethics of a humanitarian agency and the business of doing things well that preoccupies most humanitarian workers throughout their working day.

Several initiatives have begun to work on professional competencies in humanitarian action. While these are still debated, it seems possible to identify ten key operational principles that are particularly important in everyday management if humanitarian action is to be efficient and effective.28 Some of these, like collective action and value for money, have already been highlighted in the discussion on fundamental principles, because they are either implicitly nested or explicitly mentioned in the Code of Conduct.

  • 1. Humanitarian integrity—every humanitarian professional should be true to humanitarian goals and principles in the operational decisions they make and the way they represent themselves and their organization to others.
  • 2. Collective action—the willingness and ability to join up with other organizations that are delivering or facilitating humanitarian action to seek economies of scale, streamlining, greater reach, complementarity and improved performance to create the maximum humanitarian effect possible in a given situation.
  • 3. Appropriateness—the choice and application of humanitarian commodities and strategies that are fit for purpose in a given context and precisely meet the needs of all different types of affected people.
  • 4. Agility and flexibility—the operational desire, readiness and ability to adapt and innovate in changing situations in order to meet needs better as they develop.
  • 5. Timeliness—the determination and ability to understand the timings of people’s various needs and so deploy commodities or programmes to people before they need them or just in time as they need them.
  • 6. Efficiency—the desire, resources and ability to run an organization or a project using the minimum of time, expense, resources and personnel to achieve optimal effectiveness.
  • 7. Value for money—comparing the cost-effectiveness of different humanitarian interventions that target the same or sufficiently similar outcomes, and choosing the intervention that delivers the most value to the most people at the least cost.
  • 8. Due diligence—making sufficient enquiries about the ethics, interests, risks and professional reliability of individuals and organizations in your agency’s political, commercial and humanitarian supply chain and delivery network; and acting upon information received.
  • 9. Being a good employer—recruiting and retaining the best staff available, and taking due care to train, equip, protect, reward and refresh your staff fairly and to the best of your ability so that they can carry out their roles to optimal effect.
  • 10. Learning and improving—being ready and able to learn lessons from your current and previous operations and the operations of other agencies, so that you can improve your organization significantly and regularly to the benefit of those people who need your organization’s services now and in the future.

The real effectiveness of humanitarian operations is achieved by successfully applying the combined values of the fundamental principles, managerial principles and the Sphere Standards as much as possible in a particular situation. Only then can humanitarian action live up to all its ethical obligations. Designing and implementing a humanitarian programme that is principled, effective and high quality must be the mark of operational and ethical success. In contrast, an aid operation that very effectively reduces malnutrition in only one group of women and children by using expensive imported food, and without involving them or the men in their family in the design and management of the programme, is deeply problematic. It may produce a reduction of malnutrition in one group, but it is not a humanitarian success. It would be unethical and incomplete.

The stewardship principles of sustainability and accountability, with their emphasis on effectiveness, are critical to any understanding of humanitarian success. Having now reviewed all the main principles of humanitarian ethics, the next chapter will explore its overall character to see how it compares with other systems of applied ethics.

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