Women unload humanitarian aid in Bebado, Mozambique. Photo by: Staff Sgt. Corban Lundborg / U.S. Air Force / CC BY

For more than 150 years, the way the international community assists those affected by natural and human-induced disasters has been guided by four clear and succinct principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence.

It was Henry Dunant’s account of the violent Battle of Solferino in 1859 that led to the establishment of the Red Cross and the first Geneva Convention, which gave rise to these principles. They’ve since gained near-universal adherence within the humanitarian sector, being used to justify both action and inaction.

But it is now undeniable that climate change, increasing wealth disparity, and the global movement of refugees is changing the humanitarian environment. It’s time for the principles that underlie and motivate humanitarian responses to change as well.

It’s time to introduce four new principles: equity, solidarity, compassion, and diversity.

Neutrality is not possible if a shared understanding of what constitutes neutrality is absent.

The problem with the old principles

Neutrality is proffered by some as a universal principle, the gold standard to which all humanitarian organizations should adhere in all contexts. But this is neither possible nor ethical. Almost all NGO work is inherently political since it affects power relations, resource distributions, and the relative popular appeal of different political actors.

And in an age of irregular militias, we cannot presume that a single notion of neutrality is universally shared. On June 12,  2007, Taliban gunmen in Afghanistan shot six young girls walking home from school, killing two. To the Taliban, the girls’ attendance at school represented the beachhead of an enemy ideology and as a result, they became as much enemies as any foreign soldier. In such contexts, an NGO building schools for girls or training their teachers becomes an enemy too. Neutrality is not possible if a shared understanding of what constitutes neutrality is absent.

As with neutrality, the goal of independence has proven impossible to live up to. If humanitarian responses were strictly independent, we would expect victims of natural disasters, wars, and famines to have a roughly equal probability of being assisted. We know this is not the case. Instead, we see the preferential treatment of allies and the muting of political advocacy by NGOs due to a fear of upsetting government grant-making agencies or donor constituencies.

With states increasingly abrogating responsibilities to wealthy global elites and philanthropy, there are certain types of solutions that are never entertained — such as significantly increasing taxes, or strengthening regulations. Humanitarian approaches that arise from or are dependent on this elite milieu are increasingly unlikely to countenance solutions that in any way question or undermine the system that supports the power-base of that elite.

In an age of climate change, there is a risk that the operation lens of “humanity” — in the sense of the alleviation of immediate suffering — may reinforce settlement patterns that lead to greater suffering in the longer term.

Areas that are particularly vulnerable to catastrophic weather events, or semi-permanent inundation in the near future, such as parts of coastal Bangladesh, may require a “triage” approach. This approach would recognize the tragic reality that some areas cannot be saved, and that encouraging people to stay by patching up communities through repeated humanitarian interventions only makes things worse — particularly in contexts with ongoing rapid population growth.

To see a failure of impartiality in humanitarian responses, one only has to consider the decreasing hope for 5.4 million Palestinian refugees under the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or the muted response to China’s persecution and internment of up to one million Uighurs, who are mostly Muslim, in its western Xinjiang province.

Being impartial recuses us from an active stance in monitoring the actions of others. Such a position minimizes both the responders’ ability to act soundly, but also provides a signal to those transgressing the rights of others that they will not be held accountable for their actions.

4 new principles: Equity, solidarity, compassion, diversity

Four new principles would better direct humanitarian action in the current environment: equity, solidarity, compassion, and diversity. I explore these principles in detail, with my co-author Brett W Parris, in a recent working paper for the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership.

Equity is a multidimensional, dynamic concept. We may distinguish between equity in opportunity, versus equity in outcome. We may focus on current equity across genders, regions, or socio-economic classes. Or we may additionally consider intergenerational equity, which introduces concern for longer-term dynamic concepts such as climate change and ecological sustainability.

Solidarity conveys the collective obligation we have to address the needs of others. This principle of solidarity sits in stark contrasts to that of impartiality which places a barrier between “us” and “them.” It is solidarity rather than impartiality, that demands humanitarian actors seek to focus resources at the core of humanitarian events, and makes advocacy and direct action on behalf of those affected a clearer and explicit component of responses.

Compassion is a powerful human emotion. It moves one beyond empathy and appreciation of another’s perspective to action. It requires an active and human response rather than a programmatic reaction. In an increasingly hostile environment with natural and human-made humanitarian events increasing, compassion will be a foil against disinterest, lethargy or the reduction of a humanitarian response to a transaction.

Diversity forces those acting to appreciate the differences that exist within society and to properly account for them. Diversity requires diverse inputs, diverse processes, diverse evaluation, and diverse mechanisms for involvement. It requires a more nuanced approach to responding to humanitarian events. Diversity requires taking into account a wide range of differences: gender, sexuality, physical abilities, mental health, age, ethnicity, religion, economic conditions, and more.

It is entirely expected that these four new principles will be contested and alternatives suggested. Such a debate would be welcomed.

Just as witnesses to the carnage of the Battle of Solferino demanded change to how the world responded to such events, so too must we, as witnesses to the new humanitarian environment, demand change to the principles that will drive our future humanitarian responses.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Matthew Clarke

    Professor Matthew Clarke is director of the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership and head of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University. In 2017-2018, Matthew was a Fulbright Scholar for Non-Profit Leadership. He spent time in the U.S. at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, the Feinstein Centre (Tufts University), and Save the Children US.