This article was first published in the Oct/Nov 2017 print and e-edition of Global Geneva magazine.

“Humanitarian ethics? Isn’t that an oxymoron these days? A contradiction in terms?” So said a rather jaded humanitarian worker to me a couple of years ago when I told her I was writing a book on the subject.

Humanitarian aid has boomed into a $27 billion sector in the last few years – up from around $5 billion at the beginning of the 21st century. Many people feel that a small, originally honest and voluntary pursuit which was built on compassion and good deeds has become a bloated self-serving industry, or even a business.


A global humanitarian elite often lives in neo-colonial tax-free style in countries torn apart by long wars. Humanitarian bureaucrats fly business class reading dense reports of human suffering, rising needs and funding gaps. Anthropologists call this parallel universe “Aidland”. It is a strange, detached expatriate community which exists alongside millions of people living and dying through the horrors of war – at once physically close and profoundly remote.

Then there are the politicians who some humanitarians blame for ruining their innately honourable profession. Warring governments and armed groups are criticised for “instrumentalizing” humanitarian action by obstructing and diverting aid to enhance their various war aims. Rich (and usually western) donor governments who pay for humanitarian aid are accused of allocating it in line with geopolitical interest more than need. These states apparently favour humanitarian investment in armed conflicts in which they have a direct stake, or in parts of the world they want to “contain” or prevent migration.

MSF aid worker in Congo. (Photo: MSF)

It is this essentially unethical account of humanitarian action that my relief aid sceptic probably had in mind. But I wrote the book anyway because this pessimistic viewpoint is not the whole truth, and because the ancient practice of reaching out to help people at risk of death is a universal ethical intuition and endeavour.

Modern, industrial and bureaucratic humanitarian action is inevitably messy and imperfect. Like most developed welfare systems its reach is incomplete, its targeting hardly not full-proof, and it can create perverse incentives or be manipulated by giver and receiver alike. But this does not make it unethical. It may just mean it is difficult.

Humanitarian action is grounded in clear ethical foundations. The principle of humanity aims “to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found and to protect life, health and respect for the human being.” This affirms something that we all know from being alive ourselves: that human life is precious. It is right to protect it when we can.

Millions of people – in war-torn communities, humanitarian organizations and governments – engage in humanitarian action with deep conviction. Thousands have been killed as they do so. These people face real moral problems which should not be cynically dismissed.

Helping civilian populations in crisis (Photo: Medair)

What happens if food distributions have negative effects by attracting violent raids? Who should you help when you don’t have enough medicines for everyone? If you support people fleeing and leaving their homes, are you facilitating ethnic cleansing? Should you cooperate with governments and armed groups you know to be murderous and cruel if they have the power to get aid through? Is this complicity or pragmatism, or a bit of both? Is public silence in the face of atrocities immoral or wise for a humanitarian organization working on the ground?

There are genuinely difficult policy questions, too, around what constitutes humanitarian aid. What is the right kind of programming in protracted conflicts which last for decades? Is it enough just to keep meeting people’s immediate survival needs by giving them food, water and clothing?

Rohingya refugees from Burma along Bangladesh border. (Photo: ICRC)

Perhaps humanitarian action should do more to help keep people alive and offer a life with much more dignity. This means investing deeply in the maintenance and resilience of basic services like water and electricity infrastructure, health systems and hospitals. Keeping things going, not just dishing things out, may be more ethical.

Today, it is now increasingly recognized that protecting education and keeping children in school is a humanitarian act which meets a basic need and prevents even greater risks to a deterioration in a child’s long-term life chances. Ethical ideas evolve. It is also morally obvious that people should be given more control over the human itarian programmes that seek to help them. Humanitarian funding and practice should be “localized” much more.

But, not perhaps if localization risks aid flows being captured by people who have taken sides and may think their enemies do not deserve food, water and healthcare, and should be punished more than helped.


If protecting people and saving lives is good, then it is a struggle that must start anew in every war. Carefully thinking about humanitarian ethics is important in all aid operations. It is a better way to engage than telling grand narratives of the corruption and co-option of humanitarian action, and lamenting that the sector is now morally depraved.

There has never been a golden age of humanitarian action when warring parties found it easy to accept outside relief. Aid has usually been obstructed and contested in one way or another. War is hell and it is unrealistic to think that humanitarian action can be perfectly delivered with all its principles and best practices neatly aligned. In places like Syria, Yemen, Nigeria and South Sudan, humanitarian workers must focus on achieving what is possible and what is best in routinely terrible circumstances. This is what the people they are trying to help are doing. It is what humanitarians should do too.

Dr Hugo Slim is the author of Humanitarian Ethics: The Morality of Aid in War and Disasters published by Hurst and Oxford University Press. He is also Head of Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross.