Humanitarian Ethics

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Hugo Slim describes himself as being in the tradition of liberal European Christian philosophy with little knowledge of other traditions of human thought. He nevertheless believes that the human urge to help others is universal.

Slim traces European thought on the ethics of humanitarian action from Aristotle to Hobbes, Rousseau, Hume and to a number of modern writers. He describes the desire to help others changing through time from merely helping relatives to also helping neighbours to the present day where people help those far away who they do not know and will never meet. The definition he takes from these philosophers is that humanitarianism is the putting of value on every single human life for its own sake and the desire, because of empathy and compassion, to alleviate suffering and preserve lives.

The book deals with the development of humanitarian aid since the end of the Second World War. Slim explains its grounding in various international human rights laws and treaties followed by the development of aims, objectives and codes of conduct by a growing number of professional national and international organisations.

In part three he explores practice on the ground for both institutions and individual workers, referring back regularly to theoretical ethics in the process.

He deals with most of the complex issues surrounding this subject, such as problems delivering large scale aid in war zones, negotiating with various sides for access to people in greatest need, and whether people in receipt of aid are consulted and included at every level in the process, including that of decision making. Slim also looks at how national aid workers from recipient countries are paid and treated compared with international workers who frequently have higher salaries, more powerful positions and better, safer accommodation.

He believes the development of humanitarian aid to its present level is one of humanity’s greatest moral achievements, though he is critical of the sector’s problems and abuses, branding them unethical and anti-humanitarian. Nevertheless he does not really provide any solutions to these problems. It is unacceptable that people must remain for years in massive refugee camps. Salaries for organisations’ leaders are obscenely large. Who exactly will enforce change on these and other issues? Clearly there need to be political answers.

The book is written for researchers and for professional aid workers and is scholarly but accessible to read. Despite a lack of answers to some major issues, it is an informative text worth the attention of academics and professionals, and also those considering volunteering in places where governments and large NGOs have been found wanting.