Issue 44 - Article 10

Making the tough calls: decision-making in complex humanitarian environments

October 6, 2009
Ashley Clements and Dr Edwina Thompson

We are not certain where the line is between being practical – and therefore liaising with the local power base – and taking a principled stand. World Vision staff survey, April 2008

In a world where very few NGOs are perceived to be neutral by the beneficiary population, the urgency of good policy thinking cannot be overstated. World Vision staff survey, March 2008

The world of the humanitarian worker has changed. It has grown more insecure and more complex in recent decades. As we strive for greater professionalism, accountability, adherence to standards and improved quality across the industry, we also require more rigour in terms of our decision-making abilities and processes. This article provides an update on progress in applying the ‘HISS-CAM’ tool, developed in 2008 as the result of a World Vision study into NGO staff engagement with military, police and other armed actors. We and other agencies have found that the lessons from this research do not stop with armed actors and militaries. Rather, they point more broadly to the need for betterr analysis and appropriate decision-making processes to meet the specific challenges of today’s operating environments.

The tough calls

Drawn from World Vision’s experience over the past year, the following three examples are typical of the types of ‘tough calls’ confronting aid workers.

In Afghanistan, a convoy carrying 500 tonnes of food was dispatched to meet the needs of pregnant and lactating mothers and children under two years of age. En route, 10 tonnes of rice was seized from the convoy by a disgruntled ex-commander. After consulting local leaders, he agreed to return the commodities and retreat on the condition that the World Food Programme (WFP) established operations in his area. The request was reasonable given the clear need for humanitarian assistance in that area, and if World Vision – as WFP’s implementing agency in the area – were to accept this offer, staff security might improve and access to the original target population might increase. But what would be the implications for the agency’s independence? And would the office be showing that it could be manipulated for political purposes? In this case, World Vision suspended the dispatch of further convoys to the province, and consulted with the local authorities and police in the areas concerned. Rather than accepting the offer of a police escort, the World Vision logistics team decided to explore an alternative option that involved outsourcing the transport of food through local contractors.

In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, assessments conducted by World Vision staff confirmed widespread reports that fear of attacks by armed actors were the primary protection concern among women and children. While inter-agency initiatives to address this issue were being developed through the protection cluster, these were not sufficiently advanced to implement immediately. With funding available for this work, World Vision faced a decision – whether to initiate an individual agency response utilising the legal knowledge and skills of experienced protection staff, or wait for the inter-agency initiative to become operational. Key questions included whether engaging directly with actors such as the national military and police through training would enhance World Vision’s legitimacy or detract from it in the eyes of the local population. What would be the risks to the organisation’s perceived impartiality? And how would the organisation mitigate any potential negative impacts? In this case, World Vision decided to develop training modules in domestic and international human rights law, International Humanitarian Law and other humanitarian principles, focusing on the responsibilities of government authorities to protect civilians. The agency also formed community protection committees.

In Darfur, World Vision was approached to manage food distributions in a displacement camp. Large numbers of children were suffering malnutrition and were in need of urgent medical and nutritional assistance. There was concern, however, that aid entering the area could be appropriated by one of the parties to the conflict. The use of armed escorts to protect food convoys was raised in a coordination meeting, but allegations of abuse of the local population by the military, as well as resource constraints among the police, made any offer of support from the government problematic. It was decided that the only viable solution for protecting the convoys was to coordinate movements with UN peacekeeping troops. No other agency was prepared to provide assistance to the camp, which was deemed too dangerous to reach. Should World Vision service the camp? How compelling was the need? What would be the implications of association with the UN? And would it be possible to ensure adequate protection of staff? In this last case, World Vision decided to proceed with the use of UN armed escorts. Over the following months, it was the only major international agency providing assistance (including food, WASH and health services) to the camp and its host population.

Despite the apparently satisfactory outcomes in these examples, it is clear from a due diligence perspective that the decisions made could have benefited from greater transparency, inter-agency consultation and documentation to ensure that key issues were considered.  

Responding to the tough calls

So how, then, should we as operational humanitarian agencies navigate these complex environments and make these tough calls? We argue that the key to solving this problem is adhering to our humanitarian principles; these are what set us apart from other actors sharing our operating space, and provide us with the legitimacy we need to sustain our engagement. The difficulty of translating principles into practice, however, is well known among agency staff. The notion of impartiality, for example, is widely accepted by NGOs, but what does it look like on the ground?

In the face of growing risks and a more complex operational environment, we require a greater capacity for decision-making and on-the-hoof reflection, which takes into account both the principles at the core of our identity and the contextual realities and needs we seek to address. This was the reasoning behind the initial development of ‘HISS-CAM’ (see Box 1). The concept can be depicted as a kind of balancing act – providing agency staff with a framework for balancing the ethical considerations (‘principles’) and tactical choices (‘pragmatism’) that are necessary to fulfil the humanitarian imperative (see Box 2). The three-step ‘CAM’ process is depicted as the fulcrum through which the humanitarian team can effectively weigh operational choices against principles to determine the best course of action. ‘HISS-CAM’ stops short of providing an ‘answer’ to a given problem, but instead offers a framework for arriving at a decision after careful consideration of key issues and potential mitigating options.


We have found that this step-by-step approach of breaking down complex decisions improves the likelihood that vital areas are taken into consideration, such as the perceived impartiality of an organisation, the safety and acceptance of staff and the sustainability of programmatic interventions. Again, the aim is not to provide prescriptive guidance, but rather to help build staff confidence and capacity in making difficult decisions.

‘HISS-CAM’ was originally designed as a tool for equipping staff with the ability to determine appropriate levels of interaction with armed actors in areas that are considered to fall within the category of ‘exceptions to the rules’. Such exceptional and often unpredictable circumstances could involve situations in which either military engagement in a traditionally humanitarian activity seems necessary in order to save lives and alleviate suffering, or where the environment obliges humanitarian actors to interact with armed groups, often at the risk of jeopardising staff security and invoking negative perceptions of the organisation. As can be seen in Figure 1, ‘HISS-CAM’ links directly to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)’s ‘continuum of engagement’, which describes the spectrum of possible interactions between humanitarian and military operations. These range from co-existence to co-operation. Our policy added a fourth ‘C’ (curtail presence) to provide entities with the option to suspend engagement altogether, even if only temporarily whilst strategies are revised.


When making decisions about how to proceed, or when reviewing a current mode of operation, the action is measured against the four key sets of principles listed under the banner of ‘HISS’. The first two elements – adherence to the humanitarian imperative, and impartiality and independence – are derived directly from the Red Cross Code of Conduct. The last two concepts – security and protection, and sustainability – are practical considerations connected to the ‘Do No Harm’ principle. Within the context of development work, which is underpinned by long-term considerations that aim to assist communities to overcome poverty and injustice, any compromise of these principles clearly requires the highest level of justification and a consideration of mitigating options.

From our experience, not only has ‘HISS-CAM’ proved helpful to staff in making more transparent, accountable and considered choices for engagement with military and other armed actors, but it also offers a platform for collaborative decision-making that incorporates essential elements of humanitarian best practice and codes of conduct. Its field applications have shown that the tactical choices laid out in OCHA’s continuum of engagement can be substituted for a range of other operational questions, such as entry/exit to an area, engagement/non-engagement with a group or proceed/do not proceed with an operational choice. The tool also provides a format for documenting the reasons for reaching a particular decision, which can then go towards future organisational learning and ultimately help to improve the quality of humanitarian work. To date, ‘HISS-CAM’ has been applied by World Vision in at least 16 field situations in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Caucasus (see Box 2).


Looking ahead

‘HISS-CAM’ introduces transparency and rigour to the decision-making process, and an opportunity to consider critical elements which might not otherwise feature adequately. At its simplest level, the tool can prompt agency staff to re-evaluate the constraints of their contexts; something which is frequently neglected in dynamic, high-pressure environments.

The ability to use ‘HISS-CAM’ as a collaborative tool – both within a field operation and between agencies – offers a potentially new level of inter-agency collaboration, which seems increasingly relevant in complex environments. This shared approach has been applied in the recent Sri Lanka crisis as a way for multiple agencies to discuss issues, review past decisions and reach shared agreement on the appropriate actions to be taken. We see many more opportunities to use and develop the tool further, and would encourage other agencies to seek out opportunities for inter-agency collaboration, particularly when decisions are critical to our security and our ability to operate in emergencies. Not only does a tool like ‘HISS-CAM’ have the potential to facilitate communication within different offices and between agencies, but it also assists in bringing local staff into discussions, building their capacity to think as a humanitarian and communicate their ideas in a joint platform. A further benefit during the response phase of a disaster is that the tool can connect local staff better with visiting international staff, who convey operational realities to donors and the public in fundraising centres.

There is no way to guarantee ‘good’ decisions in complex environments – a multitude of variables and risks and a lack of information will certainly continue to plague the decision-making process. We can, however, make better decisions, and we should strive for the best possible course of action given the constraints. ‘HISS-CAM’ has begun to provide one answer to our dilemma of how to put our principles into practice, by allowing humanitarians in some of the world’s most chronic and complex crises to make more considered, transparent, consultative (and yet rapid) decisions under pressure.

Ashley Clements is a former Policy Adviser for World Vision’s Global Rapid Response Team ( Dr Edwina Thompson is Senior Civil-Military-Police Adviser in World Vision’s Humanitarian Emergency Affairs team. For specific questions relating to ‘HISS-CAM’ or civil–military research, please write to


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