Humanitarian Ethics

A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster

July 2015 9781849043403 224pp


Humanitarians are required to be impartial, independent, professionally competent and focused only on preventing and alleviating human suffering. It can be hard living up to these principles when others do not share them, while persuading political and military authorities and non-state actors to let an agency assist on the ground requires savvy ethical skills.

Getting aid to vulnerable populations in armed conflicts and disasters is only the first step in responsible humanitarian action. Once on the scene, aid workers are usually and immediately presented with practical and moral questions about what to do next. For example, when does working closely with a warring party or an immoral regime move from practical cooperation to complicity in human rights violations? Should one operate in camps for displaced people and refugees if they are effectively places of internment? Do humanitarian agencies inadvertently encourage ethnic cleansing by always being ready to ‘mop-up’ the consequences of scorched earth warfare? What is humanitarian neutrality? How can an agency be impartial when its movement is restricted? What does it take to be an ethical humanitarian worker?

This book has been written to answer these questions and to enable humanitarian workers to develop a practical understanding of the principles that govern their profession. It aims to help humanitarians around the world to respond effectively and in good conscience to the many ethical dilemmas that face them in their vital work to save and protect human life.

Table of contents



1. The Ethical Origins of Humanitarian Action


2. The Humanitarian Goal—Humanity and Impartiality
3. Political Principles—Neutrality and Independence
4. Dignity Principles—Participation, Empowerment and Respect
5. Stewardship Principles—Sustainability and Accountability
6. What Kind of Ethics is Humanitarian Ethics?


7. Reason and Emotion
8. Humanitarian Deliberation
9. The Structure of Moral Choices
10. Moral Responsibility in Humanitarian Ethics
11. Persistent Ethical Problems in Humanitarian Action
12. The Ethical Humanitarian Worker

Annex 1 The Principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement
Annex 2 The Code of Conduct for NGOs in Disaster Relief
Annex 3 The Humanitarian Charter
Annex 4 Principles of Good Humanitarian Donorship


‘Slim writes in a very engaging manner that is both erudite and easy to read, professional and personal at the same time, as humanitarianism must be. One really feels he himself has struggled with many of the dilemmas he describes and is eager to share his experience.’ — The Jordan Times

‘Important and eminently readable . . . masterful . . . a powerful message delivered with brio. His book should be required reading for all frontline aid workers – and even more so for their bosses.’ — Cambridge Review of International Affairs 

‘Few fields of human enterprise are as morally challenging as humanitarian aid, especially in wartime. Hugo Slim has written the essential handbook of ethical expertise for aid workers, aid organizations and students of ethics and humanitarianism. It is comprehensive, passionate and has the special gift of lucidly exploring moral complexities.’ — Alex de Waal, Executive Director, World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School, Tufts University

‘Humanitarian workers confront desperately difficult ethical choices every day as they struggle to provide aid in war and disasters. In a field where theory and practice are too seldom aligned Hugo Slim has pulled off a rare feat — a book that is as useful to the thoughtful aid practitioner as it is to the applied scholar. His analysis is fascinating and his refreshingly frank and practical approaches for navigating the ethical minefields of work in the world’s toughest places will appeal to the frontline aid worker and global humanitarian executive alike.’ — Neal Keny-Guyer, Chief Executive Officer at Mercy Corps

‘This book gets to the heart of the often impossible moral dilemmas and persistent ethical problems which confront, challenge and haunt humanitarians. As the sector professionalises and bureaucratises, it will help aid workers, managers and leaders to understand why principles matter more than ever and how they can be used to make better choices. Importantly, it is written from the perspective of someone who cares deeply about humanitarian action and who wants to help those who help others do so with care, compassion and to the highest possible standards.’ — Sorcha O’Callaghan, Head of Humanitarian Policy, British Red Cross

‘A fascinating and important book that unpack the ethics of the humanitarian enterprise, a critical question at a time when the fundamental values and principles of humanitarianism are being contested by the participation of southern actors.Few books penetrate the fundamental moral and ethical questions of humanitarianism, and even fewer in a language that is accessible to both scholars and practitioners — a must-read.’ — Urvashi Aneja, Director, Centre for Global Governance & Policy, Jindal School of International Affairs, Jindal Global University, India

‘In this brilliant and incisive work, Hugo Slim develops a much needed moral compass that helps aid workers, both seasoned and novice, to navigate the tensions between principle and practice — as well as the shoals of political manipulation in humanitarian action. An invaluable tool that should be in every humanitarian’s grab bag.’ — Antonio Donini, editor of The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action

‘An informative text worth the attention of academics and professionals, and also those considering volunteering in places where governments and large NGOs have been found wanting.’ — Socialist Review


Hugo Slim is a senior research fellow at the Las Casas Institute for Social Justice at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, and at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict at the Blavatnik School of Government.

Request an academic inspection copy Request a press review copy
Inspection Copy Request
Review Copy Request
Join our mailing list

Subscribers receive exclusive discounts and early access to new books from Hurst.