Humanitarian Access and Ethics

The other night I went to an Overseas Development Institute (ODI) event titled: “Humanitarian Access and Ethics: Decision Making in Unsafe Environments” – thank goodness for reading week, I was able to attend in person instead of watching online later (yes, I spent my reading week doing fun things like going to development talks).

I thought it was a really interesting panel; this kind of situation had always stuck with me when reading and learning about the work that humanitarian actors do. They obviously need to have ethics and have a boundary line, but what does that mean when they also have to negotiate with actors committing crimes in order to access the people that need help?

The panel talked about the complexities of negotiating access, and the challenges that arise not only for the humanitarian actors on the ground, but also for those in management and for donors. There has apparently been a shift in the sector from saving lives to managing risks, which is preventing actors from reaching the most vulnerable. This might mean that donors are putting restrictions on how the funds are used, or the humanitarian organization itself is changing its tactics in order to gain that funding or protect its staff.

They raised a lot of issues that the sector is facing, and fully acknowledged that the aid industry has a negative institutional history and that its competitiveness to secure funds means that it doesn’t always act in an ethical manner. But they did also make some excellent suggestions on how they can improve – making compromises to gain access requires contextual analysis (i.e. understanding of the context on the ground), but also perception analysis (i.e. understanding how the community feels about the organization working there). It also requires consistency in judgement and decision making, and a set policy regarding negotiations. Also, there needs to be more communication between staff on the ground and management so that situations are clarified and the best decisions can be made.

The aid/humanitarian sector tends to attract two opinions – either people think that humanitarian organizations are doing fantastic work, or people think that the sector is so rotten it needs to be scrapped and done over. The reality, like with all extremes, tends to the middle. There is a lot of work that the sector needs to do so that it does as much good as it claims to want to do, and finding a way to adhere to, but also adapt humanitarian principles to local contexts is a good start.

I definitely recommend watching the video of the event if you have time – it was really interesting!