As we have seen in the previous chapters, the modern elaboration of humanitarian ethics has emerged as a principle-based system of ethics. In these principles, the humanitarian profession describes itself to the world in ideal terms. This chapter now stakes out the field of humanitarian ethics more widely than its principles alone, in order to understand the actual shape and character of humanitarian ethics when they are applied in practice. A wider look at humanitarian ethics shows that the ethical concerns of humanitarian action operate at different levels in any conflict or disaster and across several disciplines. It is also clear that, in practice, humanitarian ethics is not a simple matter of application but is an ethics of struggle that is essentially realist rather than idealist, adopts a role morality and is increasingly turning to an ideology of rights in addition to its earlier principles and rules.

The Different Levels of Humanitarian Ethics

Humanitarian ethics engages at three very different levels of practice: the intimate, the operational and the strategic.

  • • Intimate ethics—As medics, social workers, water engineers, protection officers or livelihood experts, humanitarian workers frequently work on very personal matters of survival and dignity in intimate contact with individual adults and children, and with families and small neighbourhoods. This level of practice is concerned with the best interests of individual human beings who are suffering and with finding immediate solutions to their suffering. The intimate sphere of humanitarian ethics generates a succession of personal care challenges in which individual humanitarian practitioners must work face- to-face with affected individuals, and in their best interests, to find practical and often urgent solutions that best meet their needs.
  • • Operational ethics—As project managers, humanitarian leaders are required to make choices and decisions about whole areas of operation at the level of camps, districts and sub-regions. These choices involve organizational questions about what to do, how best to do it and with whom to collaborate. The operational sphere is more likely to involve organizational questions about the optimal organizational platform, appropriate resource allocation and more political questions of cooperation with government, armed groups, other agencies and local NGOs. It also involves important questions of staff care and security.
  • • Strategic ethics—As leaders of international organizations, humanitarian directors make global strategic choices around funding priorities, geographical coverage and political and commercial collaborations. This level is concerned with institutional interests and goals. The strategic sphere is the most remote but potentially most influential sphere of humanitarian ethics. Here, grand questions of institutional priority, goal setting, resource allocation, strategic focus and organizational culture are decided. These questions are combined with decisions around appropriate political partnerships, strategic relationships with funders and the marketing of human need.

These different levels of ethical practice are common to any large organization and business and show the range of different practical challenges involved in humanitarian ethics. Not the least of these is the requirement for humanitarians in each layer of practice to be sensitive to the ethical challenges of the other layers.

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