I applaud the work of organizations like ELHRA, ALNAP, HAP, projects like Sphere. They raise the bar. They guide and sometimes push the Aid Industry and engaged individuals inside it towards greater excellence. If you’ve been reading my stuff for very long you know that I see relief and development as a profession – one that people should be certified in before they’re allowed to practice.
But I think it’s time as well to recognize that standards and certification and regulation can only take us so far. They’re necessary, of course, but in focusing on trying to build a better system we’re overlooking the importance of individuals within that system.
I wonder if it’s time to adopt a version of the Hippocratic Oath for humanitarians.
HIPPOCRATIC OATH: A Humanitarian Version
I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
I will respect the hard-won scientific gains and lessons learned of those relief and development workers in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
I will apply, for the benefit of those affected by conflict, disaster and extreme poverty, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment – aid programmes for their own sakes – and humanitarian nihilism.
I will remember that there is art to aid and development as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding are often as important relief and development activities themselves.
I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed in order to properly implement an intervention.
I will respect the privacy of beneficiaries and aid recipients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life or to improve well-being, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to affect – perhaps adversely – the livelihoods and well-being of individuals, of families, perhaps of entire communities; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.
I will remember that I do not deal with abstract numbers, statistics, or concepts, but human beings suffering as the result of disaster, conflict, or poverty. My responsibility includes understanding context, culture, and root causes if I am to claim the title and status of “humanitarian.” This holds regardless of whether I am based in a “field” context and interact directly with beneficiaries, or based far from the “field” and serve in a support or administrative role, and regardless of whether I am expatriate or national staff.
I will implement programs to strengthen resilience and build local capacity whenever I can, for resilient communities are better able to withstand the effects of disaster, conflict and economic stress.
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of responding appropriately and adequately to those who seek my help.
[Adapted from Hippocratic Oath: A modern version. The one written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University. I’ve attempted to retain as much of the original language as possible, although obviously some portions needed revising.]
I don’t naively believe that taking an oath will immediately resolve the problems of the aid world or make every mercenary pseudo-humanitarian out there suddenly all ethical and everything. We certainly have enough examples of malpractice and abuse in the field that gave us the Hippocratic Oath in the first place. But in the scramble to make aid more professional, to innovate more, do more, to fix a flagging system or build a fail-safe system (depending on your perspective), I’ll say again that we have left out an important element. Maybe the most important element:
Simply a moment of personal commitment for everyone who claims or aspires to the title of humanitarian.
Take that moment now. Put yourself under oath.