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Humanitarian principles and current practice

Humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence
There are a number of principles that underpin the work of humanitarian agencies. However, there are four core principles that are recognised by many of the leading humanitarian organisations. These were first articulated by the International Red Cross, so I’ll refer you to their definitions of these principles. Humanity. The humanitarian imperative stems from a belief in our shared humanity. According to this imperative, human suffering must be addressed wherever it’s found, with particular attention to the most vulnerable in the population, such as children, women, the displaced, and the elderly.
The Red Cross code of conduct, which several hundred leading humanitarian agencies have signed up to, indicates that as humanitarian organisations and as members of the international community, they have an obligation to provide humanitarian assistance wherever it is needed. Impartiality. 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 distinctions of any kind. This is of particular importance in conflict situations where the provision of aid should be equitably applied to both sides dependent only on the need.
At times, this aspect is not here to obey all humanitarian actors as closely as it should be. Neutrality. The principle of neutrality builds on the understanding of needs-based provision of aid. It recognises that humanitarian actors must stand aside from political positions or biases that might hinder their access to populations in need. And independence. As stated in the Red Cross code of conduct, humanitarian organisations do not tie the promise, delivery, or distribution of assistance to the acceptance of a particular political or religious creed. Agencies should strive to maintain their independence. Essentially, non-government humanitarian organisations are meant to act independently of governments.
This means they formulate their own policies and strategies and do not seek to implement the policy of any government except where such policies and strategies coincide with humanitarian organisations’ independent stance. The principle of independence cannot be underestimated nor taken for granted. However, since the advent of the so-called war on terror, humanitarian actors have faced increasing pressure to comply with anti-terrorism legislation and other measures. It is in this particularly charged context that perceptions of independence are severely challenged, sometimes with disastrous results for agencies and also aid workers in the field who may be accused of supporting terrorists. This is just one example of how humanitarian principles can, at times, be exceedingly difficult to follow in some contexts.
Can you think of other examples? Should an agency compromise some principles in order to meet the humanitarian imperative? Increasingly, it is questions 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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