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Sequential and Multiple Intentions

In an evaluation of humanitarian responsibility, we need not look simply for a single intention and a single objective. It is clear that we can intend various things along the route to our ultimate end. As Aquinas puts it, "in the movement from A to C through B, C is the last terminus, while B is a terminus, but not the last. And the intention can be of both.”7 So, as we aim towards some final goal we are likely to have a series of intermediate goals. This is important for humanitarian ethics whose goals are often inevitably incremental because of people’s desperate conditions. An agency may intend a food security programme to ensure people’s recovery to a point that is as good as or better than their lives before a crisis, but it cannot make this happen without passing through various intermediate goals. First, people may need to regain a sufficient level of health and nutrition; then they may need to recover their means of production or income; and finally they will seek to develop a new level of resilience that prevents them from suffering so badly again from any new political, economic or environmental shocks. The overall intention of improved and resilient food security is bound to pass through a series of proximate goals on the way to its ultimate end. This means that humanitarian work can often have a sequence of goals along the trajectory of a single intention. This passage of sequential intentions needs to be understood in any evaluation of humanitarian responsibility. While a programme’s ultimate intention is important, it would be wrong to judge a programme harshly for not meeting its final goal if this were dependent on difficult intermediate goals.

Equally, humanitarian work can operate a range of divergent intentions across a single programme at the same time. These are intentions that are not sequential towards the same overall goal but involve a multiplicity of distinct goals. This principle of multiple (as well as sequential) intentions is structurally important in humanitarian ethics. Agencies may, quite rightly, be trying to achieve several goals at once. In a simple analogy, Aquinas illustrates that we can have more than one intention and that a single thing can have different intentions at the same time: "Nature often intends two purposes by means of one instrument. Thus the tongue is for the purpose of taste and speech. Therefore, for the same reason, art or reason can at the same time direct one thing to two ends; so that one can intend several ends at the same time.”8

The most constant way in which humanitarian ethics may be operating multiple intentions in a single programme concerns the various goals of its own principles. A medical agency may be working hard intending to preserve human life and dignity, but is also naturally trying to combine this goal with wider intentions to involve people in running their own health programmes, offering donors value for money, and respecting people’s culture and customs. Because of the validity of multiple intentions, evaluations of humanitarian responsibility and performance need to appreciate the full range of agency intentions in any operation. The plurality of humanitarian intention means that it would be unfair to judge an agency on just one single intention (for example, value for money) when its additional intention to increase participation is also ethically valid.

Many humanitarian agencies not only do humanitarian work but are "multi-mandate” agencies that have much longer-term goals around poverty eradication, political change and social justice. These agencies have multiple and sequential intentions in the very texture of their mission. This is not at all a bad thing in itself, but it is likely to make their opera?tional choices and their programming more complicated. The most important thing for such agencies is to own their multiple intentions and to discuss them accordingly in a given situation.9 It is their particular responsibility to be explicit about the variety or sequence of their wider intentions, and to account for them accordingly.

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