No Easy Choice:

A humanitarian's tool for ethical, principled decision making

A humanitarian's tool for ethical, principled decision making

Helping organisations and individuals make better ethical choices for principled humanitarian action.

Humanitarians often face difficult ethical dilemmas: from immediate operational choices to bigger strategic questions.  A dilemma requires making a difficult choices when no choice is obvious or ideal. The humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence alone do not always help us make the decision.

Humanitarian principles may even “create” the dilemma when they are in conflict with each other. This guide offers a tool and a process for structured deliberation to help organisations, inter-agency bodies, and individuals make better choices for principled humanitarian action.

To enable an honest deliberation, it is important to prepare well.  

Many aid practitioners recognise that their job consists of a series of dilemmas. There is no way that this aspect of the work can be avoided and no way that these dilemmas can be resolved by some overall, all-embracing framework of rules or practice guidelines… frameworks only take us so far: they do not provide answers to specific cases. The trick is to acknowledge that the dilemmas practitioners face are inescapable and, more than that, these dilemmas are a reflection of the importance of the activity in which they are engaged.

- Edkins, J. (2000). Whose hunger? Concepts of famine, practices of aid, University of Minnesota Press. -

Before using the tool consider:

1. Who should you involve?

How many conversations are needed?  Some cases require several conversations in different places, with different staff, at different levels within an organisation, or with different internal/external partners or stakeholders.

2. Clarify who is responsible for the final decision.

3. Make sure that people are prepared for the conversation(s).

Be clear about the objectives, timing and expected results of the process. Check participants know and understand the humanitarian principles, their organisation’s values and any cultural/faith values relevant to the context.

4. Clarify people’s roles.

Do they represent others? Do they offer their own perspective?

During the deliberation process, make sure to:

1. Start off with a generic dilemma to help people think differently.

How many conversations are needed?  Some cases require several conversations in different places, with different staff, at different levels within an organisation, or with different internal/external partners or stakeholders.

2. Enable an honest, respectful, and open conversation.

- Set clear ‘ground rules’ for how the conversation will develop.
- Recognise that some people will have strong emotions about the subject. Remind people of their own moral agency in creating a meaningful conversation and recognise cultural/societal norms relevant to the context.
- Ask participants if they need to declare any conflicts of interest regarding the dilemma.

3. Communicate the rules of confidentiality to participants.

It is a shared responsibility to assure people that they can speak without fear of personal or professional repercussions, or of being quoted outside the meeting.

4. Actively encourage everyone to participate and do not let certain individuals dominate the discussion.

5. Create an environment where people can think freely and bring in different perspectives based on their personal/professional experiences.

The Tool has 5 steps:

1. Identify the Ethical Dilemma
2. Identify the principles being compromised or at risk
3. Consider possible actions
4. Decide on the preferred options
5. Agree on the next steps

1. Identify the ethical dilemma

A. What is the dilemma?

Different stakeholders may have different views on the ethical dilemma and why it is an issue now. Clarify what the ethical dilemma is to avoid possible confusion and conflict. Everyone should have a similar understanding of the dilemma and its context.

B. What are the operational impacts of the dilemma?

Consider operational and organisational impacts: the ability to provide humanitarian aid to the affected communities, staff safety, and how the organisation may be perceived.

C. How does the dilemma affect different stakeholders?

How are people's rights affected immediately, or possibly in the future? Consider the different impacts on different groups, especially those most affected. As far as possible, seek the perspectives of the affected people.

2. Identify the principles being compromised or at risk

A. Which humanitarian principles or rights are being compromised or at risk?

Identify the humanitarian principles, rights, or relevant legal frameworks at risk (e.g. human rights, refugee rights, international humanitarian law). Also consider the concepts of ‘Do no harm’ and the centrality of protection.

As far as possible, seek the perspectives of the affected people.

B. Which organisational values or other ethical principles are being compromised or at risk?

Identify the organisational values that are being compromised or at risk.

As far as possible, seek the perspectives of the affected people.

3.Consider Possible Actions

Note: for each question consider:
- More than one option/answer (the first answer may not be the best option)
- The impact on the affected population and stakeholders
- If the action would create new short- or long-term risks.

1. What aligns best with the values of the organisation/inter-agency body we want to be?

Is the action in line with the values of the organisation/inter-agency body? Reflect on whether you are trying to find excuses not to do the right thing.

2. What takes into account the concerns and relationships between stakeholders, especially the most vulnerable?

What are the perspectives of different groups, especially of the affected population? Try to empathise with each stakeholder group to understand the implications from their point of view and the pressure they face.

3. What respects and values culture and faith?

Recognise there may be multiple cultures and faiths. You should know and understand any moral frameworks that are commonly accepted by the local population.

Consider how those moral frameworks overlap with humanitarian principles or organisational values. The affected population is more likely to accept actions that are in line with their own values.

4. What results in the greatest good and does the least harm for the most stakeholders?

Think who will benefit: those with the greatest needs should receive the greatest benefit first.

Consider programme criticality (e.g. frontline surgical services have greater programme criticality than a distribution of mattresses).

Consider the risks for the affected population (‘Do no harm’). If the action relates to humanitarian services, objectively evaluate the benefit of the service and do not assume that all humanitarian efforts have equal benefit.

5. What helps us improve and become a better organisation/ inter-agency body than we were before?

Examine how the organisation/inter-agency body can get better at managing the dilemma in a principled way. Dilemmas are recurring events and you should not treat them in isolation. Dealing with dilemmas contributes to the practical development of the organisation’s/inter-agency body’s values, principles and culture.

4. Decide On The Preferred Option(s)

1. What is(are) the preferred option(s) and why?

Document why you chose the option(s) and any limitations and assumptions that prevent you from adopting other options

Consider any necessary ‘red lines’ - boundaries that should not be crossed.

You create a level of accountability by documenting options, assumptions and potential limitations. Documentation may highlight external factors that prevent you from adopting an option. Such external factors may include limited access, lack of funding, and headquarters or donors’ rules and regulations

2. What other actions can you take to avoid or mitigate risks or negative impacts?

5. Agree on next steps

What are the agreed next steps after the deliberation?

Consider and document:

- What is the final decision-making process and who will be involved?
- Who will communicate the decision? When and how?
- How will you monitor the situation? What triggers should be established to force a review?

Before the discussion ends, reiterate the next steps, especially in terms of decision making.

- Decision makers should think about whether:
- They can safely share the reasoning behind the preferred option(s) (Question 4) with relevant stakeholders for transparency purposes
- The documented reasoning creates an opportunity to negotiate.

After using the tool:

1. Follow the agreed process for further deliberations and decision making.

If, for some reason, changes are needed, inform stakeholders immediately to avoid rumours and discontent.

2. Communicate the decision to all relevant stakeholders.

Communicate the limitations and reasons behind the decision to the extent possible. Tailor the message for different internal/external stakeholders.

3. Manage any risks resulting from the decision.

Find ways to mitigate any risks associated with the decision.

4. Ensure the protection of individuals who disagree with the decision.

Working against your own moral compass is emotionally draining and can affect wellbeing (‘moral injury’). Discuss people’s concerns and avoid blaming. Identify ways to support them, including mental health and psychosocial support, if necessary.

5. Implement the decision, monitor the outcome, think about its impact, and review the decision.

After making the decision, monitor its implementation. Reflect at agreed intervals and review the decision to check if it was – and still is – the right choice based on experience and evidence. Again, using the tool can help.

What next?

Using the tool above and the process outlined in the guide No easy choice: A humanitarian's guide to ethical, principled decision making can contribute to more accountability in humanitarian responses and can improve learning. 

This structured dialogue can lead to better choices for principled humanitarian action, even when there is no easy choice.