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Humanitarian principles and current practice

Codes of conduct provide clear parameters for humanitarian responders to work in. Watch Associate Professor Phil Connors explain more.
There are key principles that underpin the work of humanitarian agencies. Human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found, with particular attention to the most vulnerable in the population such as children, women, the displaced and the elderly. The International Committee of Red Cross Code of conduct outlines this a little more by indicating that as members of the international community they recognise that they have an obligation to provide humanitarian assistance wherever it is needed. Further to this, they make it clear that in order to be able to render this assistance, there is a requirement for unimpeded access to affected populations.
The principle of impartiality signifies that aid is provided regardless of the race, creed or nationality of the recipients and without adverse distinction of any kind. This is of particular importance in conflict situations, where the provision of guide should be equitably applied to both sides dependent only on the need. Sometimes this aspect is not as assiduously adhered to by all humanitarian agencies as possibly it should be. Indeed, the overriding importance of the humanitarian imperative can sometimes be used by agencies to overlook, ignore or dismiss local capacities in favour of their own capabilities. The principle of neutrality builds on the understanding of needs-based provision of aid.
It recognises that humanitarian agencies have developed from different understandings and will be informed by different creeds and potentially different values that they are free to espouse. As stated in the ICRC code, we will not tie of the promise, delivery or distribution of assistance to the embracing or acceptance of a particular political or religious creed. Agencies will strive to maintain their independence and, as such, will endeavour not to act as instruments of government foreign policy. Essentially, non-government humanitarian organisations will act independently of governments. This means they formulate their own policies and strategies and will not seek to implement the policy of any government, except where such policies and strategies coincide with the agency’s independent stance.
The principle of independence cannot be underestimated nor taken for granted, especially in the current context, where counterterrorism understandings permeate the foreign policy motives of donor governments. It is in this particularly charged context that perceptions of independence are severely challenged and sometimes disastrous results for agencies, but more importantly for aid workers in the field. Another aspect of independence is the desire of agencies to avoid single-source funding, as this can lead to complications and an identification of the agency to the principles and politics of the funding source. These principles inform the policy and practise of humanitarian agencies. Does an agency compromise other principles in order to meet the humanitarian imperative?
Increasingly, it is a question such as this that agencies are confronted with. And it is also one that you may like to think about and reflect on in your discussions.
When responding to a disaster it’s important to keep in mind that you’re dealing with people’s lives. This is why you need to understand appropriate codes of conduct.
Humanitarian assistance is not an esoteric practice, it is a close-up engagement dealing with people who have been seriously affected by conflict, disaster, or both. Codes of conduct provide clear parameters for humanitarian responders to work within. They act as guidelines for decisions and actions.
Keeping up-to-date with these codes is important. Many of the principles informing these codes have their origins in Western, European world-views. That said, while there may be reasons to question some of these codes, having them is absolutely necessary from a range of social, cultural and ethical perspectives.

How do codes of conduct help?

When you’re working closely with affected populations, codes of conduct allow you to look at things in a systematic way. For example, these codes help you to address the following questions:
  • How do we work with people affected by a disaster?
  • What factors are most important when working with these people?
  • How can you make sure that they have a say in what you’re doing?
  • How can they be engaged either as equals or as leaders in the process?
Without codes of conduct, responding to humanitarian disasters would be even more confusing and complex than it already is.

Your task

While you are watching Phil’s three minute video consider the question: ‘Should an agency compromise on other principles in order to meet the humanitarian imperative?’ Share your thoughts in the comments.
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Introduction to Humanitarian Aid

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