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



The increasing professionalism of humanitarian action can also, paradoxically, create moral hazard. The drive to improve humanitarian professionalism across the world’s many aid agencies has been developed in a global system of technical standards. These are most universally obvious in the Sphere Standards, but every agency also has its own internal standards and targets. Increasing professionalism in managerial efficiency, especially in financial, supply chain and human resources management, is another feature of humanitarian improvement. Surprisingly perhaps, targets for improved care and efficient response (which are obviously such good things in themselves and also enhance accountability) can function counter-productively. There is significant evidence from public services in the UK that target-setting in policing, hospitals and social work created some perverse incentives that actually undermined professionalism and wider positive outcomes. In each of these professions, strong government emphasis on particular targets began to skew managerial priorities to meeting these targets. Trade-offs were made between these targets and other less politically fashionable priorities. Outputslike arrests and prosecutions in policing, or waiting times, admissions and operations in medical care-were emphasized over more subtle processes like patient care and community relations. For example, large new budgets and top-line targets for responding to domestic violence and graffiti meant that police and social workers were rewarded for prioritizing these cases above all others. In order to meet their targets, they might misre- port some incidents and might arrest, caution and prosecute young teenage graffiti artists with more zeal than was necessary and not in the best interests of the child. Similarly, the need to reduce waiting times for operations may have encouraged a culture of reduced nursing care and early discharge from hospital. Targets and standards can also be inhibiting rather than incentivizing. New standards in health, safety and child protection across British hospitals greatly improved disease control, but sometimes deterred nurses from touching children to comfort them and lifting patients who could not lift themselves. Nursing was more rewarded for form-filling than its bedside care. As a general rule, process standards always run the risk of obsessing about process over results, while output standards tend to place results over due process.

These negative manifestations of a rush towards targets are a gradual form of administrative corruption, whereby managers steer their programmes and reporting towards external targets rather than individual needs and wider public goods. Affected people and humanitarians report that standardization and target-setting can have similar effects in some operations today. A Sri Lankan NGO worker observed that “we all knew the good development principles like participation or conflict sensitivity, but in the rush of post-disaster relief, very few were able to uphold such principles because of requirements to spend money fast”.67 Often it seems that the extreme sense of emergency comes from government donors more than local people. Agencies can become overly focused on delivery and insensitive to context and process, even when these are carefully included in Sphere guidance. The need to please the donor and satisfy their reporting frameworks can dominate management culture. Some agencies can also be deterred from offering assistance in particularly challenging contexts for fear they cannot meet Sphere and other standards. This may be a good thing if it leaves room for other agencies that can rise to the challenge, but a bad thing if it leaves a vacuum.

The actual process of aid administration—Dunn’s bureaucratic modality—is also highly alienating of many people. The “project mentality” itself can be a strange idea to people as agencies seek to compartmentalize and prioritize selected parts of communal life and livelihood for special attention. People often reflect that humanitarian workers are more anxious about their reporting than people’s actual problems:

People in Mali regretted that visits were very brief and that donors always seemed to be in a hurry. In their view, donors seems to be responding more to the needs of their own organizations and were more preoccupied with feeding their own systems (with reports, data collection, meetings etc.) than observing, addressing, and learning from issues in the field.68

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