Skip main navigation

Pragmatism in principled action

Pragmatism in a principled action.

While humanitarian principles form a central guiding core for actions, they can be both reinforcing and antagonistic.

They hold a conceptual value, aiming to find a distinction between humanitarians and other actors. They also define logical and morally expected values for decision-making and operation in emergency situations. Whilst there is broad agreement on their meaning, there is less about what they look like in practice. Case study research indicates that efforts to consistently apply these principles can improve the processes, effectiveness and security, and research also shows that humanitarians must frequently compromise in order to overcome real-life challenges.

We should not overlook the fact that all on-the-ground actions can be compromised by inadequate and unprincipled donor funding conditions (intentional or not). Despite repeated commitments by states in support of the humanitarian principles, translating these obligations into operational realities, including principled funding, requires continued lobbying.

In theory, organisations that can articulate their principled actions clearly and persuasively should be able to provide quick and effective assistance to those worst-affected during emergencies. In practice, those agencies that can act adaptively and find a balance between the legal, moral, ethical and risk perspectives are those that will be (and be seen to be) the most effective. Those that struggle to balance or prioritise principled actions in a consistent and transparent manner are more likely to be exposed to reputational or and financial damage.

Whilst we consider the principles that underpin response, perhaps we should also briefly reflect on the fact that these are associated with the sector, which is now referred to as an ‘industry’. There are obvious and ethical dilemmas associated with providing principled assistance in a more corporate arena. The literature identifies many ethically problematic aspects of the aid industry, such as the disparity in the treatment of national and international staff in medical or security evacuation protocols, or in the significant salaries received by some agency staff while working with the world’s most vulnerable.

Slim (2015) offers insights on how to balance competing principles or values according to the operating context on the ground. Aid organisations are constantly making decisions in terms of which members of the population to prioritise or how much risk to take (or leave), but these choices are rarely framed in terms of ethics.

Your task

Choose one task from the following choices:
After reading or watching one of the above links, make notes on how this would inform your work as a humanitarian practitioner. Share your thoughts in the comments.


Slim, H. (2015) Humanitarian ethics: a guide to the morality of aid in war and disaster. New York: Oxford University Press

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
This article is from the free online

Humanitarian Action, Response and Relief

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now