Personal Virtues

Once individual humanitarian workers know what they are doing and why, they need to cultivate professional virtues that enable them to get on and do it. Distinct humanitarian virtues are derived from the core humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence as well as Code of Conduct principles like respect, participation, capacitybuilding, sustainability and accountability. Together, these virtues form the professional attitudes and habits of mind necessary to practise the particular role morality of humanitarian action and there is clear evidence that living these principles makes for successful humanitarian work.12 Alongside these specifically humanitarian virtues, humanitarian workers also need to cultivate strong everyday human virtues like courage, patience, practical wisdom, diligence, integrity, struggle and hope.

Humanitarian Virtues

Being humanitarian means developing a rational understanding and intuitive sense of what it means to be humane, impartial, neutral and independent in a given operational context. It also involves a form of operational practice that is instinctively and effectively respectful, participatory, empowering, sustainable and accountable.

• The Virtues of Humanity and Impartiality

To be humanitarian, every individual aid worker needs to practise the core virtues of humanity and impartiality. This means cultivating the kind of humanitarian attention to people discussed in Chapter 2. This attention meets people suffering or at risk of suffering with a humane heart and an equal and unbiased eye that makes distinctions between people only on the basis of their needs. Being discerning in this way requires a closeness to people that embodies a form of professional friendship. The operational work of humanitarian action that works very practically to protect dignified bodily life requires direct human contact. People and aid workers need to meet each other and listen to one another, and to share the sight, sound, smell, taste and touch of a situation as they work together to improve it. Only by sharing something of each other and the difficulty of crisis conditions can they be humane and fair with one another and generate effective action.

• The Virtues of Neutrality and Independence

These particular political virtues required in the role morality of humanitarian action need to be honed as second nature by humanitarian workers. Counter-intuitively and against their normal moral and political instincts, individual humanitarian workers must not take sides to become political humanitarians but instead remain engaged in humanitarian politics. The art of neutrality must become more than a mask and embody a committed position which looks through political hatred and dispute to the particular tragedy of individual people and collective suffering.

• The Virtues of Respect, Participation and Empowerment

As well as the core four humanitarian virtues, individual humanitarians must develop innate and instinctive operational habits that enact the wider virtues of the Code of Conduct. This means cultivating attitudes and practices that respect cultural differences but also challenging them when necessary. It also includes the commitment to empower people in their own survival and recovery. Living the virtues of the Code requires all aid workers to see a person not as a victim or a “beneficiary” when they work together with individuals in suffering communities.

• The Virtues of Sustainability and Accountability

The virtue of a mindset that develops programmes with lasting effect and limited environmental damage is another Code virtue. So too is accountability as aid workers meet their moral responsibility to account for their actions to those they aim to help and those who invest in humanitarian organizations. As humanitarians decide and act they must constantly, as a managerial reflex, automatically reflect upon the rights, interests and expectations of those for whom they act. They must also always be ready to explain their actions to those around them in numbers and narrative.

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