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



Motivation is a little different from intention and not always a positive thing. A motive is something that may not exist at the root of good intention but could help guide us toward an act of good. Often these motives are positive. So we help people because we love them and our affection for them spurs on our good intention. But sometimes our motives are negative and more self-centred. We care for an elderly relative because we seek a place in their will or fear a bad reputation if we are seen to abandon them. We are often driven by both positive and negative incentives and so are described as acting well but with "mixed motives”.

Humanitarian agencies and humanitarian workers are influenced by various motives in their work. Their intention to save lives in a major famine may also be driven by fundraising and brand-building objectives. In big emergencies with a high media profile, agencies need "to be seen to be there” and can leverage large funds if they are there. They sometimes act as much out of a concern for their reputation as for the emergency itself. This is not necessarily bad, because the world needs large humanitarian organizations. Any director of such an organization has a responsibility to ensure its survival so that it can continue to provide valuable humanitarian relief in future. Having mixed motives in this way is perhaps inevitable and not unethical. However, it can become unethical when it reaches a certain tipping point. An agency which chooses to site its operations near a main road and within easy reach of the world’s media may breach more fundamental principles of impartiality as it begins to tilt its programmes more towards the cameras than towards people’s actual needs.

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