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Excess of Zeal

In legal and business ethics, the ethical problem of an “excess of zeal” is common. For example, divorce lawyers who advise their clients to “take their husband to the cleaners”—because the law allows it and the lawyer would receive a larger fee—are criticized for an unethical (but not illegal) excess of zeal. Their advice may be good for their own and their client's bottom line, but be very bad advice if the couple are trying to maintain good relations for the sake of their young children and to honour the good times they have had together. The over-selling of debt and insurance by the finance sector in recent years made huge temporary profits, but is now recognized as having been globally disastrous and a stunning example of a commercial excess of zeal that was illegal as well as unethical in many cases. Bank employees were driven hard by sales targets and bonus incentives that were shaped much more around market share and bank profits than by what was appropriate for the needs of the consumer.69

There may be salutary lessons here for an expanding and increasingly competitive humanitarian sector. Humanitarian agencies should be wary of skewing managerial attention so that it prioritizes donor targets and agency reputation over principles programming and people’s actual needs and rights. Many criticisms of humanitarian action seem to focus on objections to an excess of humanitarian zeal. People sense a conflict of interests in humanitarian aid and are suspicious of its commercial and competitive tendency. A group of Indonesian villagers sensed such an excess of zeal when they observed: “NGOs are selling Indonesia by coming to villages, collecting data, and providing this data to donors in exchange for funding.”70

Affected communities also regularly report a sense of being overpowered by humanitarian agencies, physically and intellectually. A Burmese refugee remarked:

We don’t want to be controlled by the NGOs. We want to work together when necessary, but not all the time. We want to be independent.... We feel like they tell us what to do.. This is because they think we don’t have enough capacity.. In order to empower refugees, they need to support them. When they don’t do this, they disempower us.71

Because aid agencies can put large teams on the ground, drive big cars and import large volumes of aid commodities does not mean that they should. The Kantian dictum that “ought implies can” is unwisely reversed to become "can implies ought”. Agencies should not throw everything they have at a problem unless it is absolutely the right thing to do. Often, it is the wrong thing to do, and more subtle solutions negotiated with the community are best.

Bureaucratization takes its toll in other ways too. Many humanitarian workers report that they are process-bound these days. Systems prevail across most humanitarian work that leave little room for spontaneity and close contact with affected communities. Donor procedures for assessment, proposals and reporting can be extremely demanding and most of these processes pull humanitarian workers more towards their computer screens than towards community engagement. The arrival of email and other social media similarly means that frontline humanitarian workers can be reached and controlled easily and constantly by transnational managers beyond their immediate line. If there is a mobile signal or Wi-Fi these days in humanitarian operations, as there usually is, then like most of us today humanitarian workers are not really where they are. Although physically in a camp or a village or a community meeting, an aid worker’s head may actually be in a virtual space many thousands of miles away.

Thickening bureaucratic process and virtual systems have implications for humanitarian ethics if they mean that humanitarians are stifled in their ability to innovate, never truly present and prevented from staying close to affected populations. Lisbeth Pilegaard of Norwegian Refugee Council sums up the risks well:

We must not let technology become a barrier to engaging and communicating with people who need protection and assistance. The risks are there that it further separates us from people we wish to work with and for. The greatest technological achievements—remote monitoring for example—may undermine our purpose by enabling us to be physically absent. Humanitarian action is also about proximity, compassion and solidarity.72

Standard procedures, bureaucratic systems and thickening technology are all necessary and potential enablers of more effective humanitarian action. Yet, as humanitarian practice develops, it needs to find an Aristotelian golden mean which strikes a balance between spontaneity and standardization, rules and relationships, proximity and distance, face time and screen time.

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