Dead or alive? Ten years of the Code of Conduct for Disaster Relief
by Dorothea Hilhorst, Wageningen University March 2005

The year 2004 marked the tenth anniversary of the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief. Given today’s intense discussions of humanitarianism, not least as a result of the Afghanistan and Iraq crises, the Code of Conduct, with its 300-plus signatories, is still of great potential value in articulating a set of shared principles for humanitarian organisations. In recent years, interest in the Code of Conduct has increased; in 2001, for example, it was used as the terms of reference in an evaluation of the Gujarat earthquake response carried out by the UK’s Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC). As one of the evaluators, Tony Vaux, notes: ‘in using the code evaluators found it a more effective and challenging tool than they had expected’. Since then, the DEC has used the Code in a similar way in several other evaluations.

In September 2004, 130 humanitarian practitioners and policy-makers from across the world gathered in The Hague for a conference to discuss the Code of Conduct’s value, and its possible future. In preparation for the conference, Disaster Studies Wageningen conducted research on opinions of the Code, and how it was used in practice. This article is based on the conference discussions, interviews and the results of a survey of 115 representatives of signatory organisations.

The value of the Code

Our research revealed that there is little explicit use made of the Code in humanitarian practice. Instead, it is used mainly as part of agencies’ training processes, in induction courses, for example. As the DEC example shows, the Code is also increasingly used for purposes of evaluation. Otherwise, for programming, negotiating access and other field purposes, the general opinion is that little actual reference is made to the Code in the field. On the other hand, there was a sense that the Code and its principles were implicitly incorporated into humanitarian work. One interviewee said: ‘in many cases, the Code coincides with people’s experience. Many colleagues are living illustrations of the principles, they don’t quote the principles, the principles are part of them’.

Despite the fact that little explicit reference is made to the Code of Conduct in the field, people hold it dear, and it was strongly appreciated. Reasons given as to why the Code of Conduct is considered important include:

  • It constitutes a body of commonly shared principles.
  • It defines humanitarians as against governments and the military.
  • It provides a common reference point for discussions between NGOs and with stakeholders.
  • It is a reference for discussions between humanitarian and development divisions, and between programme staff and marketers.
  • It is relatively concise and simple; there is no need for elaborate training.
  • Ten years on, and with 304 signatories, the Code has gained broad recognition within humanitarian and donor communities.

The Code of Conduct does not provide a blueprint for humanitarian aid. It sets parameters for that aid. There is broad agreement that using aid to support warlords, for example, to distribute Bibles or to promote racist attitudes is outside the scope of acceptable humanitarian behaviour. The Code does not, however, provide clear regulations as to how humanitarian aid should be done.

The Code is not regulatory. It uses cautious language, such as ‘we shall endeavour to’, instead of ‘we will’, and the different articles can impose contradictory demands. The cautious language makes the Code comprehensive. But it also makes it less useful for NGOs seeking guidance for their actions, and for purposes of accountability.

The Code accommodates different approaches to humanitarian aid. The first four articles concern the fundamental humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence, albeit in a weaker form than the original Red Cross principles. The other six principles give directions on how aid should be given, and are inspired by more development-oriented perspectives. They concern respecting local culture, accountability, the long-term reduction of vulnerability, collaboration with local partners, participation and the representation of disaster-affected people in the media.

Some take the position that the Code is weak in that it makes the fundamental humanitarian principles contingent. According to this position, to be useful in the future the Code should strengthen the fundamental principles, in particularly neutrality, which is ill-defined in the present text. The Code should define more clearly what humanitarian aid is, and should prioritise the fundamental principles over the other six articles.

On the basis of our research, I would argue instead that the contingent wording and the broad nature of the Code is in fact a strength. In 1999, Stephen Jackson and Peter Walker cautioned against entrenching the division between humanitarian and development-oriented approaches to aid, and argued for looking at humanitarian aid in a more contextual way, which acknowledged that some situations will allow for development-oriented assistance, whereas in others assistance should be limited to relief. Working in the midst of an ethnic conflict requires a different approach to working in the relative calm of a refugee camp, or in a post-conflict situation. Some situations require strict neutrality; others do not. Some situations allow for a developmental approach; other emergencies require a strict concentration on life-saving activities. In extremely tense situations, local organisations may not be reliable; in others, it might be highly unethical and inefficient not to rely on local groups. In these circumstances, there can be no blueprints for humanitarian aid, and humanitarian policy needs to be attuned to the context. The Code of Conduct provides an instrument to help humanitarian decision-making in a differentiated and contextual way.

The future of the Code

The revived interest in the Code of Conduct, its high value in the eyes of signatories and its potential utility in humanitarian decision-making suggest that it is worth keeping the Code alive. To fulfil its potential, the Code should become more institutionalised. There are many ways by which signatories could incorporate the Code into their internal and external affairs. Based on our research, here are some examples:

  • Announce on the agency’s website that the agency had signed up to the Code, and insert the text of the Code on the website.
  • Incorporate the Code into the organisation’s reports.
  • Produce internal guidelines or a policy paper making clear how the principles of the Code relate to the organisation’s principles or other standards adopted by the organisation.
  • Make compliance of, or respect for, the Code part of contracts, and ensure that staff sign up to this when they join the organisation.
  • Make the Code part of training curricula.
  • Make the Code a standard part of the terms of reference for evaluations.
  • Refer to the Code in general policies.
  • Provide a complaint mechanism for people served by the organisation.
  • Ensure self-assessment or peer reviews of the organisation’s accordance with the Code.

There is significant scope for initiatives within and between signatories to promote the Code. The DEC has used the Code in its evaluations. The International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) and the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR) have initiated a project to write a commentary to the Code, and the group of Dutch NGOs that organised the Hague conference plays an active role in follow-up activities. Other organisations could develop projects to promote the Code.

This is, however, not enough. To become valuable for the future, a mechanism should be put in place to manage the Code of Conduct. This should have three aims. In the first place, it should act as a regulator of the signatories. Presently, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) is ‘caretaker’ of the Code, but the IFRC has no mandate to remove signatories, and there are no minimal requirements for signatories. This is problematic because there is a status attached to the Code. The EC’s Humanitarian Aid Office ECHO, for example, makes being a signatory to the Code one of its conditions for funding.

Second, the mechanism should be a platform where issues pertaining to the Code in practice can be discussed. Such a discussion should include questions about complaint mechanisms and (self-) monitoring procedures. The Code presently contains no sections about monitoring or complaint procedures. This is consistent with its intention, expressed in the preamble, to be a ‘voluntary code, enforced by the will of organisations accepting it to maintain the standards laid down in the Code’. Our research showed broad agreement that the articles should be binding, and that beneficiaries should be able to use the Code to complain about poor aid provision. There is also agreement that self-reporting should be a requirement. There thus appears to be a constituency in support of discussing possibilities for complaints and monitoring, or self-monitoring. This accords with a trend among the many local codes – in Somalia, Liberia and Afghanistan, for example – to introduce mechanisms for complaints and monitoring. Introducing complaint procedures would additionally result in an ongoing dialogue of what is acceptable humanitarian behaviour.

Thirdly, the mechanism should consider amendments to the wording of the Code. To retain its relevance, three problems deserve priority:

  • Articles 3 and 4 on neutrality and independence should be strengthened and clarified.
  • Article 5 on respect for local culture should be elaborated.
  • The wording of the entire Code must be adjusted to remove its bias towards international NGOs, and make it equally relevant for local NGOs.

These amendments can be made without changing the spirit of the articles or the scope of the Code of Conduct.


Dorothea Hilhorst is senior lecturer at Disaster Studies of Wageningen University. She can be contacted at: thea.hilhorst@wur.nl. A paper prepared for the Hague conference, A Living Document: The Code of Conduct of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief, by Dorothea Hilhorst, can be downloaded at www.pso.nl/asp/documentsite.asp?document=363.


References and further reading

Tony Vaux, The Selfish Altruist (London: Earthscan, 2001).

Joanna Macrae and Nicholas Leader, The Politics of Coherence: Humanitarianism and Foreign Policy in the post-Cold War Era, HPG Briefing Paper, no. 1, July 2000, www.odi.org.uk/hpg/papers/hpgbrief1.pdf.

‘Neutrality’, special feature, Humanitarian Exchange, no. 25, December 2003, http://www.odihpn.org.

O. Bakewell, ‘Uncovering Local Perspectives on Humanitarian Assistance and Its Outcomes’, Disasters, 24(2), 2000, pp. 103–16.

Politics and Humanitarianism: Coherence in Crisis? (Geneva: Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2003).

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