Doing the right thing: relief agencies, moral dilemmas and responsibility in political emergencies and war

Disasters. 1997 Sep;21(3):244-57. doi: 10.1111/1467-7717.00059.


In recent years a new generation of relief workers and relief agencies has become embroiled in the heat of civil wars and political emergencies, and the humanitarian community has had to revisit its fundamental principles and address the ethics of what it does. This paper sets out to continue this important debate by emphasising that ethical analysis should always be an essential part of humanitarian practice. The paper seeks to recognise the difficult moral choices relief agencies are facing today and gives some practical guidelines to relief agency staff when confronting the ethics of a given situation. In particular, it hopes to introduce some ethical principles into the debate about humanitarianism and contribute to the moral vocabulary which is being developed to improve relief agencies' ethical analysis. The paper starts by looking at the essential characteristics of a moral dilemma, and the way in which other types of tough choice can masquerade as moral dilemmas. It then introduces some basic moral principles surrounding the key ethical notions of action consequences and moral responsibility in an effort to show how relief agencies might begin to develop a process of ethical analysis in their work. Finally, it explores how relief agencies might develop a more intuitive form of ethical analysis based on an organisational conscience and moral role models.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Decision Making
  • Ethics*
  • Humans
  • Morals
  • Relief Work*
  • Social Responsibility
  • Warfare*