There is currently considerable interest in improving the effectiveness of humanitarian assistance through the promotion of principles of good practice and codes of conduct. This paper places these initiatives, and particularly the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief, in the context of endeavours within the humanitarian sector to address the underlying values that effectively govern the behaviour of practitioners. The paper interprets this as the development of organisational ethical ethos and demonstrates that creating an ethos requires the convergence of two separate ethical systems, the practitioners and the organisations, and how this is best achieved through dialogue and discussion. The paper concludes by affirming the initiative to improve practice by establishing universally observed ethical standards but that to be successful these standards in the form of the Code of Conduct must be ‘owned’ equally by the agency and its personnel.

Doing the job well

‘If a jobs worth doing, its worth doing well’. Offering humanitarian assistance is a job worth doing but sadly evidence suggests that it is not being done as well as it might; ‘aid more often worsens conflict, even when it is effective in humanitarian and or development terms, rather than helps mitigate it’ (Anderson, 1996, 14). The evaluation of the humanitarian response to the genocide in Rwanda, found that humanitarian agencies provided ‘unacceptably poor standards of service and care’ to people and were never held accountable (Millwood, 1996, 153). It has also been suggested that humanitarian agencies are virtually sacrosanct and therefore above criticism (African Rights 1994, 2, 1997, 353).

This protection may have shielded agencies in the past but times have changed. As Hugo Slim has said, well-meaning no longer suffices for well-conceived or well-done (Slim, 1997). It is interesting however that often it is external forces that act as the initial catalyst for organisational change and this seems to be what we are witnessing in the humanitarian sector at the moment (Fowler, 1997, 195). In a sense, the criticism of humanitarian assistance has reached a point where some people would suggest the very integrity of the sector is threatened and with it the survival of humanitarian agencies. In other words the situation is critical and when a situation is perceived by those on the receiving end of the criticism, as critical it acts as a powerful stimulant for change (Palazzolo and Feyerhern, 1996, 1030).

In Figure 1 some of these principle forces that are acting on the established humanitarian agencies, are depicted. Donors, for example, are pressing agencies for greater accountability in the application of relief assistance(ODI, 1998,3). The academic community is having a significant influence on both agencies and donors, by urging improvements in the effectiveness of programmes. Recipient communities are being more selective in choosing their choice of Humanitarian agencies, as is happening in many countries such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Afghanistan to name but three. In fact Eritrea has recently expelled international NGOs from the nation (ODI, 1998, 4). There is also the competition from the military who are increasingly active as alternative suppliers of relief assistance and wish to be perceived in that way, judging by as a recent recruiting piece from the RAF proclaiming ‘Their country needs you’. It appears also that commercial contractors are keen to become major actors in the delivery of humanitarian assistance as well new start-up agencies who are flexible, focused and highly motivated and are springing up and competing for limited funds. Not all the momentum is external however, because some influential agencies are participating in the call for greater self-regulation (Cater and Walker, 1997, 9-22).

In an effort to preserve the reputation and the special status of humanitarianism, a number of initiatives have been launched to develop sets of principles to guide the ethical delivery and receipt of humanitarian assistance[1]. The Code of Conduct for The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief (Code) is the most well known and has emerged as the most universally acknowledged.

During 1992-3 representatives of a consortium of 8 of the world’s largest networks of humanitarian agencies under the auspices of the SCHR, developed the text of the Code to govern the way humanitarian agencies should work in disaster assistance (Walker and Cater, 1994, 24). The Code was published in mid-1994 and widely disseminated among the humanitarian community (RRN, 1994, 2). The aim of the Code is ‘to guard our standards of behaviour’ by developing a formal instrument against which the performance of humanitarian agencies can be measured (RRN, 1994, 4,7). By the end of 1997, 149 humanitarian agencies had signed the Code and at the 1995 International Red Cross Conference, 144 countries pledged to promote the Code in their own countries (Walker 1998, pending, Cater and Walker, 1997, 144).

Developing an ethical ethos of humanitarian practice

The Code aims to improve the practice of humanitarian assistance by influencing the underlying principles or values that guide humanitarian action. In other words to tackle the perceived root of the problems; a lack of universal principles of practice. This is certainly the key factor if real change in practice is to be introduced because as Fowler has pointed out:

‘Beliefs, vision and values are at the top of a hierarchy of organisational features which need to be in place if lower levels of organisational activity are to be done well. Without these foundations, serious inconsistencies between policies and real life practice can and do arise’ (Fowler, 1997, 35).

The introduction of the Code and the accompanying ‘Sphere Project'[2], which is developing a Beneficiaries Charter and Minimum Standards in humanitarian response, represents an effort to establish an ethical framework that will advance effective humanitarian action by agencies. In essence it is an initiative to establish an consistent ethical ethos within the sector.

These initiatives are laudable but unfortunately advancing practice in the manner envisaged in the Code is not as simple as merely the adoption of the Code by agencies. This is because practice only changes when practitioners themselves acknowledge that change is essential and accept that the ‘old way of doing things is over’ (Palazzo and Feyerhern, 1996, 1031). If ‘real life’ practice is to change to reflect the standards espoused in the Code, then the ‘belief, vision and values’ of agencies and their practitioners individually, must conform to these standards. This demands creating an ethos in which the Code is a central and an integral part of the heart of the agency.

An ethical ethos can only be said to exist when the ethical culture and customs of the humanitarian agency as outlined in the Code, become an identifying characteristic and which are so universal that they are rarely questioned or disputed by personnel (Childress and Macquarrie, 1967, 208). This ethos must be so pervasive and universal that it shapes and sanctions the performance of practitioners in their practice of humanitarian assistance (Solomon, 1992, 152).

To complicate the matter still further, an ethical organisational ethos is in itself a synergy of two separate ethical systems and these systems must converge before the desired ethos becomes a reality.

These two ethical systems are the espoused ethical standards of the humanitarian agency, as expressed through the various formal instruments of the organisation, for example the Code, and the personal ethical system used by individual practitioners in making decisions. Figure 2 illustrates how these two streams must be negotiated between the humanitarian agency, through its leaders, and the individual practitioner to arrive at a mutually agreeable ethos (Solomon, 1992, 152).

Organisational Ethics Are Essential

The organisational half of the ethos equation involves enhancing organisational morality. Human communities are ‘essentially units of morality’ and the ethicality of a humanitarian agency will be judged on the basis of how well it relates within it’s own or the host community. In this respect a humanitarian agency can be compared to a citizen. It has no real identity without being part of a wider community and subsequently this places social responsibility to act ethically directly on an agency (Solomon, 1992, 148-152). It is the behaviour of the agency, as a whole, that ultimately determines whether it will maintain or lose the support of societies in which it operates. Ethical performance should promote the community support the humanitarian agency needs for effective humanitarian assistance abroad in addition to the recruiting material and human resources at home.

However as Figure 3 illustrates, the humanitarian agency as an entity, is under pressure from competing influences as it endeavours to formulate its organisational framework of ethical practice. The leaders of the humanitarian agency, have the challenge of interpreting this environment and contributing this interpretation to the dialogue of building the ethical ethos.

The Code is one of the principal contributions currently that the agency itself brings to the equation but even this instrument is subject is subject to interpretation.

The agency has a responsibility to endeavour to systematically facilitate development of the moral excellence of practitioners and to make ethical conduct the norm in the humanitarian agency (Hoffman, 1986,240). To accomplish this an ethical position, embracing the principles of the Code, should be clearly reflected in three organisational areas. Firstly it should be readily apparent to practitioners that behaviour that complies with the Code is the expected behavioural norm in the agency (Kitson and Campbell, 1996, 104-106). Secondly, the goals, policies and structures of the humanitarian agency should be entirely consistent with the aim of complying with the Code. Finally and perhaps most importantly, the clear intent to practice ethical relationships in the delivery and receipt of humanitarian assistance, as expressed in spirit of the Code, should be manifested through the small and hardly noticeable actions of the organisation that become the ‘way we do things around here’ (Hoffman, 1986).

Signing and implementing the Code is part of reflecting this organisational commitment to ethical performance. Nonetheless will signing and introducing the Code be sufficient to guarantee ethical performance? One of the principal writers in the field of business ethics, Robert Solomon, maintains that codes are not by themselves enough to result in an ethical organisation (1992, 102). Normally, where there is compatibility between a code and the personal ethic of the practitioner, then the code will reinforce the personal position. However, if there is incompatibility, then the outcome may depend on how practitioners assess the rewards for conforming or the sanctions for non-conformance (Smith and Johnson, 1996, 173).

People in leadership positions, in particular, will apparently attribute more or less importance to a code of conduct depending on how closely it matches with their own personal value system (Kitson and Campbell, 1996, 124). Codes tend to collectivise standards of performance and although this may be the preferred approach for practitioners motivated by a prescriptive approach to practice, it does not necessarily contribute a great deal to equipping practitioners to make sound ethical judgements (Hartman, 1996, 35). A further danger with codes of conduct is that they allow managers to focus more on monitoring conformance than mentoring and coaching practitioners. Monitoring compliance with the Code does not adequately promote individual commitment to its principles.

As the effectiveness of the Code hinges on personal interpretation and application by individual practitioners, the adoption of the Code will not guarantee ethical performance by humanitarian agencies, it can only enhance it.

Personal Ethics Are a Central Factor

The practitioner because of the need for negotiated convergence, has a critical role in developing this ethical ethos and then subsequently, as the representative of the humanitarian agency, in how that ethos is experienced by stakeholders. At field level the practitioner has the potential to pursue his or her own agenda and even though a humanitarian agency may espouse a certain standard, such as the Code, actual practice may deviate from this because ‘people can choose how to behave and what to do’ (Chambers, 1997, 13). Appropriate organisational behaviour hinges on the personal values, commitment and motivation of practitioners (Fowler, 1997, 23).

To be effectively experienced by people to whom humanitarian assistance is delivered, the ethical principles of the Code should be practised because they ‘belong’ to practitioners, through ownership of the principles themselves, not because of a functional conformity to externally imposed organisational rules. Furthermore compliance with this codified ethicality should preferably be monitored by practitioners themselves with the support of leaders, who encourage them to measure their own practice against the ethical ethos(Gill, 1996, 212).Being ethical, as portrayed in the principles of the Code should add to the practitioners sense of personal satisfaction of a ‘job well done’ whereas non-compliance should result in diminished personal satisfaction.

However even when a satisfactory ethos has been agreed the expression of the ethical ethos is complicated still further because other factors compete to influence the practitioner’s behaviour at project level. The factors depicted in Figure 4 are influential, even if the practitioner has internalised [3]the humanitarian agency’s ethos.

Firstly, the agreed ethos itself is reinterpreted by the practitioner personally at the location for their practice. That interpretation may or may not be entirely consistent with what was originally intended. Secondly, the practitioner is still very mindful of the social customs and the expectations of ‘home’, especially where these deviate from the ethos.Thirdly, the practitioner is rightly sensitive to the customs and conventions of the host community. Finally the managers of the humanitarian agency, who have their own interpretation of the ethos and like the practitioner are sensitive to the environment at home, endeavour to influence the practitioner.

What is needed?

It is notable that the majority of codes of ethics in the business sector were introduced as ‘top down’ approaches (Webley S., 1992 in Kitson and Campbell, 124). This is essentially the case also for the Code which was developed by senior managers in the humanitarian community (RRN, 1994, 2). The negotiation of the convergent ethos has been largely overlooked. In general discussion among agency leaders there seems to be a consensus that the Code has been signed and adopted at senior management level but that there has been a limited effort to promote the embracing of the provisions of the Code among field practitioners. What is more, there seems equally to be a sense that the Code has not yet influenced individual practitioner practice to any appreciable degree and that the Code is not even well known among practitioners who are working in projects.

The question arises therefore, whose Code is it and whose conduct is it designed to guide?

In developing a code of conduct one of the most important aspects is to have a clear plan for the implementation process. It seems as though this important step has been missed in the development of the Code. Three critical factors have been identified as key if a code of conduct is to be successfully implemented. Firstly it should be based on an extensive period of research, consultation and discussion by, on behalf of and between all affected parties. Secondly it must be owned by all who are affected by it and not just imposed by ‘executive fiat’. Thirdly it should be backed by a programme of staff development and training which is on going and which opens up the code to amendment in the light of experience. As personal integrity is a crucial characteristic in effectively implementing the Code, self-development is therefore ‘the most important form of practitioner training’ (Kaplan, 1996, 120).

Functionally there are also a number of steps that it has been recommended to implement to support the existence of the code. These include recognition of tangible rewards for conduct that exemplifies the desired principles of the code. Periodic certification and auditing to assure compliance with the standards espoused in the code. Well defined and fair enforcement procedures including sanctions. An ombudsman type person who can field questions and concerns about the practical compliance issues. The code should also be featured in the recruiting of personnel (all from Manley in Kitson and Campbell, 1996, p129).

Agencies that have not followed this general approach could still institute a programme that takes the Code as a given instrument but its implementation is subject to negotiation within the agency. Agency leaders may see this as a threatening approach given that there is a slight possibility that personnel may reject the document. However if it is recognised that without this process the desired behaviour will not be achieved then the slight potential risk is offset by the rewards of the potential of the Code being embraced more fully.

Summing up

Ethics, both individual and organisational, are at the heart of delivering effective humanitarian assistance because humanitarian assistance at its heart reflects relationship between communities and the behaviour of people in communities is the province of ethics.

Therefore the development of a code of ethical conduct is important in preserving the quality of this relationship. But what is more important is that the code effectively guides the behaviour of agency personnel.

The individual practitioner is the pivotal figure in this process of defining and effecting ethical behaviour. The organisational entity is also an integral part of the equation and must actively contribute to the development of the ethos. If the Code is to become the influential resource that it is intended to be then it is essential that a process of dialogue and discussion be initiated in agencies to enhance the potential for the convergence of the ethical systems of both the organisational entity and the individual practitioner.

Whose code, whose conduct? This paper has endeavoured to demonstrate that what is important is that the Code is ‘owned’ by both the agency and its practitioners thus creating an organisational ethos in which the principles of the Code are central. If this ethos is achieved this should in turn result in the practice of humanitarian assistance more naturally being conducted in compliance with this ethical standard.


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1. The Providence Principles, (Minear and Weiss, 1993, 19) The Ten Commandments (Prendergast, 1996, 53-110) The Code of Conduct (IFRC, 1996), The Mohonk Criteria (World Conference on Religion and Peace, 1994), The Framework Principles (Ramsbotham and Woodhouse, 1996, 226) Humanitarian Principles (Lebas, 1996) and the Declaration of Minimum Humanitarian Standards (prepared by the expert meeting convened by the Abo Akedemi University Institute for Human Rights), Do No Harm: Supporting Local Capacities for Peace, Mary B. Anderson, (1996), are examples. This list does not include the Principles of the International Committee of the Red Cross that are enshrined in International Law. The senior four principles of which are Humanity, Impartiality, Neutrality and Independence. The authors view is that these principles alone if they were more adequately understood by practitioners would constitute a most effective means of ensuring a high level of ethical delivery of humanitarian assistance.

2. Details of the Sphere Project can be obtained from Susan Purdin, Project Manager, P.O.Box 2100, 1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland. Email:

3. Internalisation: This takes place when the desired behaviour is adopted because it coincides with the persons own value system. The content of the behaviour is intrinsically rewarding to the person themselves and ‘is inherently conducive to the maximisation of their own values’. In the case of ‘internalisation’ however the influence of an external source can be very important especially for example where a certain behaviour is recommended by an ‘expert’ and that recommendation is consistent with personal values. Internalisation contrasts with compliance, which has to do with adopting a particular behaviour in the hope achieving a favourable reaction from others and Identification, which has to do adopting behaviour because it is customary in the group (The foregoing from Kelman, 1961).

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