Ethical Challenges in Humanitarian Action

Interview with Ursula Miller

by Ursula Miller, Damaris Walter, 2012/11/02

On October 12th and 13th, 2012, many humanitarian organisations and foundations as well as students and other people involved or interested, came together for the XIV. Humanitarian Congress in Berlin. This year, the main theme of the two-day series of speeches and debates were the ethical “dos and don’ts” in humanitarian aid.

humedica was represented with an information stand and several staff members from its headquarters, like Ursula Miller. She is very experienced both as an aid worker in the field and as a desk officer responsible for projects in the headquarters in Germany. In the following she answered our questions:

Could you give us examples for typical situations in humanitarian aid that represent an ethical challenge? Are decisions in such situations rather made on an emotional or on a rational basis?

During our work we have to face a variety of ethical challenges. One example is that during disaster situations the need for help is enormous, such that you cannot satisfy this need as a single organization. Especially during the acute stage of a disaster you have to decide very quickly who to help and which means to use. This may not always seem just at first glance.

Also the cooperation with authorities, who do not always pursue the same humanitarian goals as aid organizations, is often difficult. This is especially the case with states that do not have or have very weak democratic structures. In order to be able to implement a project, we are dependent on cooperation. Yet at the same time we have to think twice to what degree we can accept their demands without putting our independence at stake. At this point what helps is to keep our goal in mind, which is to improve the situation of people affected by a disaster.

What were the main aspects discussed during the congress?

As mentioned before, the main focus was on the ethical dilemmas that can arise in humanitarian aid and many aspects of this were treated during the congress, such as patients’ and personal rights, the security of humanitarian staff as well as the question whether humanitarian aid can contribute unintentionally to prolonging wars.

Which new insights did you gain in Berlin?

It became clear to me once again that humanitarian aid is so complex that we must never stop questioning our own approaches and actions and examining the effects of our activities. The world is in constant change and every disaster situation is unique. At this point it seems important to me to develop systems that allow an even closer observation of what we can change through our projects.

What is it generally like to meet hundreds of other humanitarian workers from other organisations based in Germany and other countries?

I always find it enriching to hear about the experiences of other people. It changes your perception of your own work and prevents you from “stewing in your own juice”. I also find it interesting that the congress has such a varied audience. There is a large number of students, but at the same time there are many people who have been working in different crisis areas worldwide for decades.

Why do you consider this opportunity of exchange so important?

It is always important to receive input from other people engaged. At the Humanitarian Congress there are not only aid organizations present, but also scientists and representatives of state institutions. At the same time this is, of course, an opportunity for humedica to get known. Many participants of the Congress are new in the humanitarian field and are looking for organizations where they can get involved. And so, our humedica training announcements aroused much interest.

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