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Political and Professional Reality

Humanitarian principles present humanitarian action in ideal terms as a way of saving and protecting human life in armed conflict and disaster. In many accounts of agency websites and in the Powerpoint slides of training programmes, it is suggested that humanitarian action’s core moral values (human life and personal dignity) can be put neatly into practice by respecting the main principles of impartiality, neutrality, independence. However, as any humanitarian worker will tell you, once you leave the training session on humanitarian principles and start working on the ground, humanitarian ideals crash straight into political reality.1

Politics is the arena of humanitarian action, and humanitarian ethics are soon swept up into political process and not so easily applied according to principle. Within the political arena, humanitarian ethics also has to deal with the particular ethics of its various fields of practice. Alongside political judgements, and often because of them, there are difficult choices to be made about assisting individuals within particular fields of health, food security, water, sanitation, livelihoods, emergency education, protection and social work. Most humanitarian workers have to operate as politicians and technical professionals: negotiating political space and deciding how best to meet people’s survival needs.

The political and inter-disciplinary character of humanitarian work suggests that humanitarian ethics is a more complicated field of ethics than is formally recognized in humanitarian action’s declamatory ethical texts like the Code of Conduct, the Humanitarian Charter and the Sphere Standards. In reality, as it is actually practised, humanitarian action combines political ethics with medical ethics, economic ethics, social work ethics, supply chain and logistics ethics, and the ethics of any other field in which it responds to human need. Humanitarian ethics is also multi-layered. It operates at very different levels of society as it expands globally in large international organizations. The natural domain of humanitarian action reaches organically from UN headquarters in New York to a pit latrine in an IDP camp, from meetings in Geneva to the examination of wounded patients in field hospitals.

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