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Stepping in to help, morally

04 December 2015

Robin Gill considers a study of aid’s ethics


Humanitarian Ethics: A guide to the morality of aid in war and disaster
Hugo Slim
Hurst £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10


HUGO SLIM is well respected in humanitarian-aid circles. He has the credibility of long experience of working in the past for Save the Children and the United Nations in Sudan, Ethiopia, Palestine, and Bangladesh, as well as more than two decades of research and teaching, now at the Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict at the University of Oxford.

While admitting that he is a Christian himself, he has consciously written this book for professional workers (whether they are religious or not) "as they try to deliver humanitarian aid respectfully and fairly in difficult conditions". He writes in a highly accessible style, without presuming previous knowledge about humanitarian aid or about ethics; so this is a book that should be of interest to anyone who is concerned (as we all should be) about reaching out to the millions of people around the world who are still afflicted by wars and disasters.

It works at two levels. The first gives an account of social justice in Western thought. Many other books, of course, have done this. There is no shortage of accessible accounts of ethical and moral theory (he makes no distinction between ethics and morality). The relevant chapters here offer helpful summaries of concepts and moral theorists over the past two-and-half millennia, but they can easily be skimmed or skipped by readers for whom this is familiar territory.

The other and much more interesting level is concerned specifically with the ethics of humanitarian aid — both with the protocols and behaviour that are appropriate for professional workers, and with the ethical justification for continuing humanitarian aid despite some strident modern critics. Here, Slim’s long experience and deep knowledge come to the fore.

Taking protocols and behaviour first, he sets out at length the moral virtues that are crucial for professional workers — including compassion, respect, participation, accountability, and empowerment. There are few surprises here, although he admits frankly that it is easy for weary professionals to become cynical or to succumb to local offers, say, of prostitution or drunkenness. But what about his inclusion of impartiality and neutrality as key virtues for professionals in this area?

He admits that impartiality might normally be seen as a vice in a context of radical inequalities and injustice. Yet he insists that "humanitarian action must try to save anyone who is suffering in armed conflict or disaster. . . The life of the fanatical ideologue inciting indiscriminate violence is as valuable as the gentle primary-school teacher encouraging peace." Effective action must be based upon and respond to human need alone.

What about the critics of humanitarian aid who say that it creates (negative) dependency and achieves little? Here he insists that they exaggerate: "The great majority of vulnerable people suffering from armed conflict or disaster do not want to be dependent on a humanitarian organization. . . Most people who have suffered want to get on and recover, and aid is very seldom estimated to make up the major part of an average family’s overall survival strategy."

Nor can he find any evidence to support the claim that "humanitarian action prolongs wars."

These words resonate strongly with the current migration crisis caused by the disastrous war in Syria. This is a book to challenge all readers of the Church Times.


The Revd Professor Robin Gill is Editor of Theology and Canon Theologian of the Cathedral Chapter of the diocese in Europe.

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