Applied Ethics in Humanitarian Action

Lecture, Seminar
  • Course description

    The study unit starts by examining the complex relationship between security and humanitarian action from an analytical perspective. It moves on to examine the ethics of humanitarian action, also from a more theoretical vantage point. It then takes a thematic and case study approach, taking a series of key questions as points of departure: How have security concerns affected humanitarian responses in different contexts such as Rwanda, DRC, and DPRK? How have humanitarian responses affected the security of the recipient population? Why has humanitarian action in some instances led to increased insecurity?
    Ethically, if the raison d’etre of humanitarian assistance is to assist and protect those disenfranchised through conflict, poverty or disaster how can we think about some of the contradictory aspects of such laudable activities?
    How for instance can international organizations and NGOs justify paying large proportions of humanitarian budgets to well-paid and privileged international officials whose understanding of the latest crises into which they are thrust is often minimal and their ‘intrusion’ sometimes resented by the local population? How can the UN prevent peace-keepers and humanitarian officials engaging in non-licit activities that range from engaging in local parallel markets through to prostitution and smuggling?
    Students will thus gain knowledge of relevant theories, concepts and debates about the relationship of humanitarianism to security. By examining ‘theories’ we explore the ways that knowledge is constructed. What assumptions do we make? What concepts do we employ? What explanations do we propose? What normative judgements do we make? The debates generated through various responses to these questions will help students to critically interrogate and analyse the empirical material on humanitarian organisations and humanitarian crises.
  • Learning outcomes

    1. Knowledge & Understanding: By the end of the study-unit the student will be able to:
    - Demonstrate an advanced knowledge of the theoretical, conceptual and ethical debates germane to international humanitarianism in the context of human, national and international security analysis
    - Evaluate critically the institutions, processes, policies and activities of the international humanitarian system
    - Demonstrate an ability to locate the study of international humanitarianism within broader debates in the disciplines of International Relations and/or Security Studies
    - Demonstrate in-depth knowledge of history, actors, issues, dynamics, and ethics of contemporary humanitarian emergencies
    2. Skills: By the end of the study-unit the student will be able to:
    - draw links between academic political analysis and policy practice
    - use the Internet as a tool in political communication and policy evaluation
    - develop sophisticated arguments in written form
  • Teaching and learning methodology

    The aims of the Humanitarianism and Security study unit are as follows:
    - To convey knowledge and understanding of international humanitarianism in the context of global human, national and international security challenges
    - To facilitate understanding of the ethics of international humanitarianism
    - To develop students’ understanding of the relationship between theory, policy and practice
    - To develop students’ skills in the effective collection and interpretation of information from diverse sources
    - To develop students’ abilities to argue cogently, concisely and critically
  • Assessment methods and criteria

    Presentation: 35% weight, resit availability present
    Video: 65% weight, resit availability present
  • Required reading

    Ethics of Humanitarian Action
    1.         Anderson, Mary. Do No Harm. How peace can support peace or war.. Lynne Rienner Publishers. 1999.
    2.         Ethics in action. Cambridge University Press ISBN 0-521-68449-8 Edited by Daniel A. Bell and Jean-Marc Coicaud.
    3.         Making the tough calls:
    4.         The ethics of war and Peace (Nigel Dower).
    5.         Global poverty ethics and Human Rights.
    6.         Ethics of global development. David A. Crocker.
    7.         Moral Relativism: Big Ideas/Small Books by Steven Lukes.
    8.         Do ethics Matter in Humanitarian studies. article at
    9.         Hard ethics in humanitarian work. Article at
    10.       Humanitarian and development aid in the times of economic crisis; times of great need and reduced resources. Article at
    11.       Revisiting the meaning of some humanitarian principles in new contexts. Article at
    12.       Hugo Slim. Humanitarian Ethics.A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster. Hugo Slim. Hurst 2015.
    13.       Larry Minear and Hazel Smith (2007) Humanitarian Diplomacy: Practitioners and their Craft United Nations University Press.
    14.       David Rieff, Roy Gutman and Kenneth Anderson (eds.), Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know (New York; London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007).
    15.       Daniel A. Bell and Joseph H. Carens, ‘The Ethical Dilemmas of International Human Rights and Humanitarian NGOs: Reflections on a Dialogue between Practitioners and Theorists', Human Rights Quarterly, Vol.26,No.2 (2004).
    16.       Michael Doyle and Nicholas Sambanis, Making War and Building Peace: United Nations Peace Operations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).
    17.       S. Neil MacFarlane, Humanitarian Action and Conflict (Providence: Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies, 2001).
    18.       Mary B. Anderson, ‘You Save My Life Today, But for What Tomorrow? Some Moral Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid’, in Jonathan Moore (ed.), Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention (Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), pp.137-56.
    19.       Pobreza y Libertad (Adela Cortina y Gustavo Pereira).
    20.       Almansa, F. (1999), Reflexiones sobre ética y Cooperación para el desarrollo, Cuadernos de Cooperación, intermón Oxfam.
    21.       Camps,Victoria, Virtudes públicas, Colección Austral, Espasa Calpe (A-310).
    22.       Cortina, Adela, La ética de la sociedad civil,
    23.       Etxebarria,X. (1999), Ética de la Acción Humanitaria , Serie Ayuda Humanitaria, Textos básicos, vol. 4, Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao.
    24.       Martínez Navarro, E. Ética para el desarrollo de los pueblos, Ed. Trotta.
    25.       La respuesta ética desde las Organizaciones Humanitarias. Artículo en
    26.       Militaires Humanitaires, À chacun son rôle, MSF,GRIP, Editions Complexe 2002.
    Codes of conduct Professional Standards:
    27.       Code of Conduct for The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief.
    28.       Video of Code of Conduct in Disaster Relief.:
    29.       SPHERE Project: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response, Video en
    30.       Code of conduct on images and messages relating to the third world. General Assembly of the Liaison Committee of Development NGOs to the EC.
    31.       Education in Emergencies, Standards
    32.       The Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International (HAP-I):
    33.       The good enough guide (Impact Measurement and accountability in emergencies) )
    34.       Humanitarian Exchange . HPN. Various publications. (Nº 24 on Accountability, …)
    35.       Sexual and Gender-Based Violence against Refugees, Returnees and Internal Displaced Persons. Guidelines for Prevention and Response. May 2003. UNHCR.

Last updated: 16 January 2018

This site uses cookies to enhance user experience and to track usage statistics. For more information, see NOHA’s Data Privacy Policy.