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



There is much talk about agencies and the international system in discussions of humanitarian action, but it is really the individual humanitarian that is central in humanitarian work. The way each person in every agency decides to be humanitarian when he or she gets up in the morning sets the tone of humanitarian ethics around the world. If most of us choose to be principled, practical, daring, courageous and thoughtful, and keep struggling to stay close to affected communities and create solutions with them, then humanitarian action stands a good chance of being relevant, effective and respected. If too many of us become cynical, cautious, bureaucratic, self-interested, inefficient and prefer to sit with our laptops rather than with people suffering around us, then our agencies and the humanitarian system will reflect these attitudes and attract resentment rather than admiration.

At the beginning of this book, we noted that the word ethics comes from the Greek word ethos meaning character. The quality of humanitarian action is determined by the character of the people doing it and by their particular virtues, which comes from the Latin word for strength. This final chapter, therefore, explores the personal dimension of humanitarian ethics. It examines the kinds of things people need to feel, be, know and do if they are to form a strong humanitarian character and develop effective humanitarian virtues. Some people have quite a lot of these characteristics and strengths already, but the rest of us may have to practise and develop them. Ethical character and practical virtues, like roses and rice, need to be cultivated carefully.

This chapter will look first at some personal dimensions of humanitarian work like motivation, working relationships, lifestyle, self-care and morale.1 It then sets out to define what constitutes essential humanitarian virtues and everyday virtues for individual humanitarian workers.

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