Between Scylla and Charybdis: The Ethical and Moral Dilemmas of Humanitarian Action
The topic of this paper was inspired by Fiona Terry’s book Condemned to Repeat?, in which she illustrates the moral paradoxes confronted by humanitarian agencies in their work. I intend to show how, in their intention to ‘do no harm,’ humanitarian organizations ‘successfully’ avoid facing the consequences of their own hubris. By purporting that their work is and should be unambiguously apolitical, they embrace as their core principle the minimalist aim of saving lives. These agencies cause a prolongation of the suffering they are trying to alleviate, as their material resources end up fueling local or regional conflicts. I think it is most appropriate at this point, to mention that my purpose in exposing the inherent dilemmas of humanitarian action is not to belittle its positive effects or the dedication of its workers. Indeed it is most admirable that there are people whose calling is to alleviate suffering, and that deprive themselves of all comfort and physical security so that they can be in the midst of situations, in which most of us would not dare going. But this does not make humanitarian action, indeed humanitarianism itself, immune to criticism. I believe that, for these very reasons, it is crucial to discuss how it is possible that an enterprise geared towards saving lives ends up prolonging and even creating suffering and tragedy. My aim is to go beyond a mere description of these tragic consequences, although practical examples will be used to illustrate the argument of this paper. However, my primary goal is to expose the ethical and moral underpinnings of this dilemma. The questions that I am trying to answer are: What are the moral grounds on which the very concept of humanitarianism is founded? What is the prevalent mentality of aid workers ‘in the field’? How is it possible that organizations that have as their self-professed aim to alleviate suffering end up aggravating it? Are there any solutions to this dilemma?