Problems of Maleficence (Harm)

This range of moral problems is concerned with the potential maleficence in humanitarian action: its ability to do harm instead of or as well as its intended good. Sometimes humanitarian action can do harm directly by treating people badly. At other times, it can contribute indirectly to harm by enabling or bringing about the wrongful acts of others. Either way, humanitarian aid can run the risk of making things worse for the people it intends to help. As Shakespeare’s Friar Lawrence reminds us in Romeo andjuliet: “virtue itself turns vice being misapplied”.5

The Moral Hazard of Indirect Harm

Many ethical problems in and around humanitarian action concern the harmful unintended consequences of humanitarian aid in the wider context of an armed conflict or disaster. The potential for these indirect effects is best described as the moral hazard of humanitarian action. Ethical critiques of humanitarian action cited above identify many specific areas in which humanitarian aid may cause indirect harm. They suggest that humanitarian aid can prolong war, create dependency, destroy the local economy, legitimize and empower abusive regimes, and facilitate the creation of concentration camps. They argue that aid distributions in volatile areas can bring about violence by increasing the incentives for armed raiding that steals aid from vulnerable communities, or increases corruption as local authorities exploit or tax people because of the aid they receive. More structurally, several critiques suggest that prolonged humanitarian aid is corrosive of proper political contract between a government and its people because humanitarian agencies take de facto responsibility for people’s needs. Government abdicates its social respon?sibilities and people make demands on international agencies, not local politicians.6

This legitimate ethical focus on the wider negative effects of humanitarian action is naturally consequentialist in its concern. It places significant weight on indirect harm that may arise as a consequence of humanitarian action. It rightly worries that while humanitarian action may make some things better, it may make other things worse; or that it may make things worse overall in the long run for the people it is trying to help. These consequentialist concerns represent genuine moral problems for humanitarian work; but before we address them in more detail, it is necessary to dispel a couple of myths in the ethical discussion of humanitarian action. First, that humanitarian aid is so powerful that it can have extraordinary structural effect. Secondly, that humanitarian workers are the only people who have moral responsibility in a given situation. Neither of these ideas is empirically true, but sometimes they feel true and they certainly tend to make a good story.

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