The principles debate just woke up: now where’s the evidence about the practice?

February 2, 2023

Sophia Swithern

Women attending Teacher Training classes, Afghanistan

The principles debate goes through cycles of dormancy and hyperactivity. And it appears to have just woken up. So why, given all the importance and attention, do we still have so much more opinion than evidence when it comes to how humanitarians are putting principles into practice?

Waking up the debate

In the 15 years covered by ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System (SOHS) reports, we’ve seen the prominence of principles rise and recede in humanitarian consciousness. Back in the 2018 edition it seemed not to loom so large on the system’s radar. Of course, there were dilemmas and debates around cross-border aid in Syria and support to migrants in Europe; but broadly, in that commitment-setting era of the World Humanitarian Summit and the Grand Bargain, principles hovered somewhere below preoccupations with efficiency and localisation. However, rewind to the pilot edition of the SOHS in 2010 and principles appeared front of mind for practitioners grappling with weighty concerns about keeping their distance from militarised stabilisation agendas.

Now the principles debate has woken up again, as ODI’s recent discussion on neutrality attests. When we began to research the current edition of the SOHS we wondered if we’d have enough new material about principles; in the end we struggled to contain it in a single chapter.

What has caused this revived focus? Clearly the war in Ukraine has been a tipping point, giving prominence to new dilemmas and old inconsistencies around neutrality and ‘humanitarian resistance’. The Taliban’s ban on women aid workers is currently forcing high-stakes moral choices around complicity and humanity. But even before this, in the 2018–2021 period covered by this edition of the SOHS, events were converging for a re-engagement with principles. Across multiple research strands – from community focus groups to global practitioner surveys and literature reviews – we heard that global political trends, specific crises and new moral reckonings were upping the urgency and pushing the parameters of what principled humanitarian action means – and who gets to decide.

The global trends pointed to a palpably shrinking humanitarian space. One leader spoke of ‘an absolute fight for core norms’, which might sound like hyperbole but is backed up by our data sources. Authoritarian ‘strongman’ states flexing their muscles against humanitarian action were on the rise, with 70% of the world’s population living under dictatorship and attacks on aid workers having increased by more than two-thirds in just six years. Respondents to our global practitioner survey were worried: 45% said humanitarian space had shrunk while 24% said that it had not changed. Less than 31% felt it had expanded in the places where they worked.

As these global trends played out in specific crises both new and protracted, dilemmas around impartiality and neutrality came to the fore. Just as the internationally led system struggled with this in Myanmar, so the tightening space in Syria, conflict in Tigray and repression in Venezuela put high-level principles to real-world tests.

Renewed moral reckonings for the system added to the principles challenge. Decolonisation critiques prompted reappraisal of what humanity means, and the continued push for localisation raised the question of who gets to define and judge neutrality and impartiality and ‘own’ the narrative. Who gets to claim the principled high ground?

Declining performance

Our research sought to chart not only the emergence of these tests of principled action, but how the humanitarian system actually performed against them. We used syntheses of evaluations and literature, as well as surveys and interviews with aid recipients and practitioners, to indicate how organisations had navigated the principles in complex operating environments. The verdict was largely not positive; the evidence pointed to a continued decline in the international system’s ability to act in alignment with its core values.

From the perspective of crisis-affected populations, humanity and impartiality were central worries. When we asked aid recipients what they most wanted our report to assess, their top concern was whether aid reached those who needed it most, a question that is fundamental to all aspects of needs-based response. Our findings showed that performance here was hampered in many ways: access impediments, insufficient and skewed funding, and biases in mapping needs (biases inherent in needs assessments as well as those imposed by authorities). None of this is new, but we were struck by the salience of what one source called the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ afflicting international organisations that accepted increasing restrictions and interference in targeting in exchange for permission to remain in-country. The Syria response was a stark example, with international agencies facing untenable compromises – including intelligence services vetting recipient lists and diminishing access outside government-held areas – if they were to continue to operate from within the country.

There was also a dim view of the neutrality and independence of the system. Sources around the world suggested that international humanitarians were hiding behind a façade of neutrality. Even before Hugo Slim recoined the term, we heard a strong call for more vocal support of ‘resistance humanitarianism’. We heard this from responders in Myanmar – echoing Adelina Kamal’s call for support for local action – and also in Venezuela, where civil society organisations on the front line of response felt both undermined and abandoned by international responders. Globally, advocates spoke of a muting of the humanitarian voice in an ‘age of silence’.

A patchy evidence base

These are, of course, generalisations; the so-called system rarely speaks with a single voice on principles. Some agencies chose to risk expulsion by speaking out, while others forged alliances with human rights groups to support activism while staying present. But across the system, it was not easy to find solid evidence for either the exceptions or the norms. We pride ourselves on being grounded in a solid mixed-methods approach, but when it came to performance around principles our SOHS findings were on relatively thin and patchy ice. Substantive sources of evidence were largely lacking, and even prominent experts privately suggested we may be facing a futile search.

When it came to international agencies routinely assessing and interrogating their own performance, the evidence base was relatively sparse; robust reviews were certainly harder to come by than anecdote and opinion. The international system generates a weighty body of literature and evaluations each year, but principles receive scant attention in this. Humanitarian principles are rarely considered in evaluations of humanitarian programmes and responses, and when they are considered it tends to be a brief mention rather than a systematic assessment. Across our four-year study period we found only two major evaluations (2018 and 2019) that seriously examined the question of how principled humanitarian action was.

Even in the wider literature and in targeted interviews, the more substantial challenges and examples came from those outside international agencies. Anonymised interviews with international leaders produced some frank critiques, but we heard much more about principles from rights campaigners, political analysts and groups involved in direct action: civil society organisations in Myanmar, local non-governmental organisations in Venezuela, and international security analysts in Syria.

Too difficult to document?

So, although they pin their core identities to the principles, most international humanitarian agencies actually don’t have a clear analytical understanding of how impartial, neutral and independent they are in practice. Many are ready to state strategic commitments, give examples of tools and protocols, cite good examples and be self-critical about dilemmas. But why is it that they tend to be more able to debate the principles than to routinely give a measured account of how they are applying them?

Part of the answer is simply that it’s really hard. Nothing about principles is easy: they are ethically hard to apply, and technically difficult to measure. Definitions are slippery, interpretations are rightly shifting and evolving and obvious metrics are absent. They are approximate lodestars, not technical standards – broad and contested concepts which don’t easily lend themselves to benchmarks and log frames. It didn’t help that in evaluation frameworks, principles had been swept into the rather broad criterion of ‘coherence’ where they tend to be overlooked.

These problems of assessment aren’t insurmountable, as the journey to evaluating protection has shown. Creative ways to capture experience can be forged, but there has to be an imperative. Yet to date there has been little imperative because it’s also hard to be publicly honest about principles. Agencies are aware not only of the clear political and security sensitivities, but also of the reputational challenges of measuring oneself against a set of standards that can never be fully realised and which carry innate dilemmas. By definition, there are no right answers to dilemmas. Compromises are inherent in real-world decision-making, especially in the fraught situations where humanitarian action is most required. As Médecins Sans Frontières demonstrated over a decade ago, when it detailed the ‘grubby negotiations’ behind the ‘lofty rhetoric’ of principles, the point of evidence-gathering is not to try to score performance against impossible benchmarks, but to document the calculus of decision-making so that the sector can understand, and learn from, how and why compromises were made.

The problem of leaving it in the domain of debate

Calling for better evidence might seem like a tired cry from frustrated researchers, far from the sharp end of grappling with whether and how to provide medical support in Syria or food in Afghanistan. What does the official evidence base matter when we have the proof in front of our eyes in Tigray and Ukraine? Surely organisations don’t need to wait on more evaluations to decide what to do – especially given their track record in learning from them. And surely we don’t want to perpetuate the defunct knowledge hierarchy by privileging internationals’ own self-assessment methods over the testimony of local actors and risk further entrenching exclusionary definitions of the principles. All this is true, yet we repeatedly heard in our research for the SOHS that the lack of clear and routine documentation of decisions and stock-taking of consequences is getting in the way of changing how the system works.

On a day-to-day operational level, the absence of a clear understanding of practice impedes staff support. The main major evaluation of principles found a ‘generally poor understanding of humanitarian principles across the whole humanitarian community’, and found that aid workers were often ill-equipped to tread the principles tightrope in complex environments. They did not have the skills, leadership and strategic guidance they needed to weigh up options and make tough decisions.

The lack of rigorous routine stock-taking also gets in the way of the collective honesty required for concerted action. Organisations that took a stand against assertive regimes and politicised aid – as in Ethiopia and Yemen – found themselves out on a limb, second-guessing rather than supporting each other. Of course organisations might justifiably choose to take differing courses of action, but well-informed, joined-up thinking is still a necessary step towards a coherent stance in the face of common threats. Even the Emergency Relief Coordinator remarked on the lack of collective principled push-back against the challenges to humanitarian independence posed by certain donor positions, noting that ‘we shouldn’t be surprised at this, but we should be able to disagree with them’.

We also heard how the failure to practically scrutinise principles is impeding meaningful system change. Our research on the humanitarian–development–peace nexus found that humanitarians and development actors are still ‘talking past each other on principles’. This is stymying constructive progress in several organisations and countries. When it comes to localisation, there was a persistent concern that internationals’ unrealistic and disingenuous purist expectations around principles remain barriers to entry for local humanitarians. The international system needs to hold up a mirror to its own messy and compromised practice, and to be prepared to use this reflection in an honest re-evaluation of who gets to decide what principled action looks like.

The current debates addressing narratives, parameters and power in humanitarian principles are fundamental to the future of humanitarianism. So it’s positive that the system is being shaken awake on principles, even though the global context is alarming. If we are to avoid getting caught napping again there needs to be a move away from edifying intellectual debate and ad-hocism, and towards radical, rigorous and routine honesty about performance. However hard it may be for technical, political and reputational reasons, humanitarian organisations need to commit to systematically and robustly asking certain questions in all their operations: Which principles are we prioritising? How are we really applying them? And according to whom? We are starting to see glimmers of this in some organisations. But as needs soar, politics becomes more polarised and funding becomes more constrained, the years ahead will continue to challenge the interpretation and application of principles. The importance of evidencing how humanitarians are navigating these dilemmas, with integrity, humility and collective resolve, is only going to grow.

Sophia Swithern is an independent consultant and co-author of the 2022 State of the Humanitarian System report.


Comments are available for logged in members only.

Can you help translate this article?

We want to reach as many people as possible. If you can help translate this article, get in touch.
Contact us

Did you find everything you were looking for?

Your valuable input helps us shape the future of HPN.

Would you like to write for us?

We welcome submissions from our readers on relevant topics. If you would like to have your work published on HPN, we encourage you to sign up as an HPN member where you will find further instructions on how to submit content to our editorial team.
Our Guidance