Purpose of the Book

This book is written for humanitarian professionals and for those studying humanitarian action. The purpose of the book is to develop a better understanding of the ethical framework that guides humanitarian action and to help practitioners think through the ethical difficulties in running humanitarian operations on the ground in light of the moral tensions just described. In the pages that follow, I examine what the humanitarian profession espouses and believes. I then offer various ideas and models of practice to help humanitarian workers apply their ethics more consciously and effectively on the ground. I have tried throughout to illustrate the book’s discussion of ethics with real world examples of the challenges that routinely confront people in humanitarian operations. Throughout the text, I use the words "ethical” and "moral" fairly interchangeably, the former coming from Greek and the latter from Latin.

Unlike many moral philosophers, I see no need to force a distinction between them.

This book is organized into three main parts. The first part examines the ethical origins of our humanitarian instincts as a species. To do this, Chapter 1 draws on various traditions of philosophy and ethics to understand how human beings have developed an intellectual understanding of our moral urge to help each other in distress. I trace various progressions in Western thought and their apparent confirmation in modern science with its neurological and psychological insight into empathy and compassion. This chapter is a little philosophical and so can easily be skipped over by readers who would rather start straight in at Chapter 2.

In the second part of the book I examine the modern elaboration of humanitarian ethics to understand how the humanitarian profession has formulated its core values and operational principles in the fast growing development of international humanitarian action since the end of the Second World War, including the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the steady flow of new human rights conventions, the Red Cross principles of 1965 and the Code of Conduct of 1994. In an analysis of particular humanitarian principles, Chapters 2 through 5 are intended to form a new commentary on humanitarian principles. Chapter 6 then looks at the overall system of humanitarian ethics that has emerged. I characterize humanitarian ethics on the ground as a particular kind of politically realistic ethics that publicly operates a strong idealist descant alongside the realism of its fieldcraft. I suggest that the principalist construction, politicized operating environment and pragmatic culture of humanitarian ethics imbue it with an intrinsically interpretive and realist ethical culture, despite its professed idealism.

The third part of the book then explores what it means to practise humanitarian ethics. Chapter 7 discusses the importance of combining emotion, reason and virtue in practical humanitarian ethics, and the significance of making choices and taking action on the ground. In Chapter

  • 8 I offer simple frameworks for practising ethical deliberation. Chapter
  • 9 analyses the typical range of ethical choices common to most humanitarian operations. Chapter 10 then gives a model for understanding moral responsibility in humanitarian action. In Chapter 11 I look in more detail at the structural ethical tensions in aid and discuss a range of persistent moral risks in humanitarian work that are likely to arise anew in every humanitarian operation. These include the risks of unintended harm, association, complicity, staff security, silence and the abuse of humanitarian power. Finally, Chapter 12 suggests how best to encourage and create ethical humanitarian workers and responsible ethical cultures in humanitarian organizations.

As always, I feel bound to explain my own position as author of this book so that you know something about the person you are reading. I studied theology at university and write as a European Christian with liberal political opinions. My intellectual tradition is confined to the canons of Western thought, with its classical and Judeo-Christian origins. I am largely ignorant of other traditions of human thought and feeling. As a result, there is very little in this book from Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, African and pre-Columbian worldviews and ethics. I am also no expert on modern science or on postmodern Western thought. I worked as a humanitarian worker for Save the Children and the UN for several years in the 1980s and early 1990s in Morocco, Sudan, Ethiopia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Bangladesh. Since becoming an academic in 1994, I have tried to visit as many conflicts and humanitarian operations as I can and to remain aware of them from a distance. I have also tried to maintain some form of engagement with humanitarian agencies of all kinds, either by leading evaluations and training programmes for them, or by taking governance positions on the board of Oxfam and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) in the UK. I have always tried to listen hard to the experience of humanitarian workers whom I meet as students, colleagues or friends. All this means that this book is written from a very particular perspective and place; but I hope there is virtue in such a text. Humanitarian ethics make a universal claim about the profound value and radical equality of human life and the need to respect and protect it at all times. I support this claim and hope that this book’s description of one particular view of this universalism will provide a clear text for people to challenge or confirm, both from within my own tradition and from other traditions.

To date, humanitarians have been good at writing their ethics in declamatory principles, but the profession remains strangely underdeveloped in exploring its applied ethics. It is my hope that this book will give us all a little more to go on and so enable a wider and more precise global conversation about the practical ethics of humanitarian action in the world’s wars and disasters. In particular, it is my deepest hope that the following pages will help the world’s many humanitarian workers and the communities with whom they work to think and feel their way through some of the difficult ethical situations they face.

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