This Network Paper seeks to contribute to solutions to an important and vexing problem: how can humanitarian organisations help people caught up in conflicts, when these conflicts make it dangerous for aid workers to operate safely? Many humanitarian staff and organisations believe that being ethical and principled is the best, most proven way to protect the people they seek to help and themselves. Being principled is therefore both a moral and a practical choice. As described in this paper, however, the fundamental humanitarian principles come into tension with one another, and the environment forces aid organisations to make compromises. Any breach of ethical standards or humanitarian principles poses a risk to the organisation being able to fulfil its mission of saving lives and relieving suffering. Agencies can effectively deal with this by adopting a risk management approach, in which they view such compromises as a risk to assess and then mitigate, deny or accept.

This paper seeks to provoke discussion and reflection among aid practitioners about some of the difficult practical and moral questions they face when trying to reach people in need of assistance in war zones. It provides illustrative examples and suggests promising practice, drawing primarily on research conducted for Secure Access in Volatile Environments (SAVE), a three-year research programme (2013–16) exploring how to deliver an effective humanitarian response amid high levels of insecurity. The research involved extensive fieldwork in four of the most dangerous aid settings at that time – Afghanistan, South Central Somalia, South Sudan and Syria. SAVE focused on three areas: presence and coverage (see Abby Stoddard and Shoaib Jillani, The Effects of Insecurity on Humanitarian Coverage (London: Humanitarian Outcomes, forthcoming 2016)); access and quality (see Katherine Haver and William Carter, What It Takes: Principled Pragmatism to Enable Access and Quality Humanitarian Aid in Insecure Environments (London: Humanitarian Outcomes, 2016)); and accountability and learning (see Julia Steets, Elias Sagmeister and Lotte Ruppert, Eyes and Ears on the Ground: Monitoring Aid in Insecure Environments (Berlin: Global Public Policy Institute, 2016)). For a more detailed discussion of the research methodology informing this paper, see Haver and Carter, What It Takes. Interviews with several dozen senior managers of national and international aid organisations in these four countries form the main evidence base for this research. Additional interviews with hundreds of mid-level staff, consultations with over 700 affected people living in the four countries and an online survey of over 200 aid staff also informed the paper. In addition, the paper draws on other studies and books, notably Hugo Slim’s Humanitarian Ethics, published by Oxford University Press in 2015.

The paper has three specific objectives, one for each section:

  1. To describe some of the hard choices and ethical problems that humanitarian organisations face as they take decisions to try to enable access in high-risk environments (Chapter 1).
  2. To present a model for a risk management framework that better incorporates programme criticality, to enable more ethical decision-making (Chapter 2).
  3. To present some decision-making practices that show promise in allowing organisations to access affected people in high-risk settings, and for people to access aid (Chapter 3).

Decisions can be made by an individual, a team or by a whole organisation. There can also be system-wide or inter-organisational decisions. Dan Maxwell and Heather Stobaugh, ‘Response Analysis: What Drives Program Choice?’, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, 2012. The decisions examined in this paper are mainly organisational rather than inter-agency, and at the strategic and programme-design level, rather than lower-level, tactical or operational decisions. These decisions were designed to contribute to maintaining or increasing access in hard-to-reach, insecure areas. They were often difficult to make and involved a high degree of risk and potential positive or negative consequences. They included decisions about whether to:

  • expand programmes to new areas or sectors;
  • re-enter or restart programmes in an area where the organisation has previously worked;
  • implement directly versus in partnership;
  • implement one type of activity (or sector) over another; or
  • use one transfer modality over another (cash, vouchers, in-kind).

Several researchers and academics have argued that humanitarian agencies generally pay insufficient attention to the ethical dimensions of decisions, including risks to affected people. See, for example, Abby Stoddard, Katherine Haver and Monica Czwarno, ‘NGOs and Risk: How International Humanitarian Actors Manage Uncertainty’, Humanitarian Outcomes and InterAction, February 2016; Fiona Terry, ‘Book Review. Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster’, International Review of the Red Cross, vol. 97, no. 897/898, February 2016; Slim, Humanitarian Ethics; Caroline Clarinval and Nikola Biller Andorno, ‘Challenging Operations: An Ethical Framework to Assist Humanitarian Aid Workers in their Decision-making Processes’, PLOS Currents Disasters, Edition 1, June 2014. This is despite ethical elements being ever-present in humanitarian work, especially in high-risk, insecure conflict settings. Other studies on the role of evidence in humanitarian decision-making have found that external evidence often has limited relevance to decision-making, with decisions often highly ‘path dependent’. See, for instance, James Darcy et al., ‘The Use of Evidence in Humanitarian Decision-Making: ACAPS Operational Learning Paper’, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, January 2013; Maxwell and Stobaugh ‘Response Analysis: What Drives Program Choice?’; David A. Bradt, Evidence-based Decision-making in Humanitarian Assistance, Network Paper 67 (London: ODI, 2009). Instead, decision-makers are influenced more by ‘the institutional framework for decisions … implicit values and assumptions … and the mental models by which they processed available information’. Darcy et al., ‘The Use of Evidence in Humanitarian Decision-Making’, p. 7.  Putting together these two observations suggests that both organisational frameworks/values and personal judgement capacities – including the capacity to recognise ethical problems as they arise – are important. This paper seeks to contribute to the development of both within the sector.


5 Hugo Slim, Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster (Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 26–27.

Lastly, it is important to note that the SAVE research did not involve detailed case studies of ethical dilemmas. Thus, while many examples of ethical risks are presented in Chapter 1, they have been used to illustrate a specific point rather than to examine a situation from all angles. In specific contexts where ethical issues have been at the fore, the humanitarian sector could benefit from a more in depth examination of the issues from a variety of perspectives – political, economic, social, cultural – and points of view – government, armed groups, affected people, aid organisations.


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