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Inklings | How to navigate ethical dilemmas  

Notes and musings on how aid works, from The New Humanitarian’s policy editors.

The header image for the Inkling's newsletter entry of 15 May, 2024. On the top left you see Inklings written in a serif font with an ink bleed effect and underlined with a burgundy color line. On the bottom right we see a list of the main topic:  How to navigate ethical dilemmas  

Welcome to another edition of Inklings, where we explore all things aid and aid-adjacent unfolding in humanitarian hubs, on the front lines of emergency response, or in the dark corners of online aid punditry.

It’s also available as an email newsletter. Subscribe here.

Today: An ethics guide for tough decisions, TikTok humanitarians, and an AI disclaimer.

On the radar|

How to choose between two bad things: Research group Humanitarian Outcomes has released a new tool that promises to help humanitarians navigate ethical dilemmas. It’s billed as  “a humanitarian’s guide to ethical, principled decision making”. Simple, right? The idea grew from research looking at how Taliban restrictions on female NGO staff in Afghanistan had divided humanitarians and stirred up “toxic” debates: “They started accusing each other of having the wrong values,” researcher Nigel Timmins said during a May launch for the ethics guide. “People really started attacking each other.”

  • The ethics gap: It’s a guideline to have structured conversations about humanitarian dilemmas, and to document the decision-making process: “We didn’t find any organisation that actually had a process of deliberation for these difficult situations,” Timmins said. “So there were crisis management meetings, there were strategy discussions, there were board convenings – lots of people got together, but there wasn’t actually a process for dialogue that allowed everybody to express their views in a way they felt heard before a decision got made.”
  • Will it be used? Researchers tested the guide with local NGOs and international agencies. Orzala Nemat, director of the Development Research Group, said Afghan humanitarians she spoke with said they were debating aid dilemmas for the first time: “‘We never had any conversations in our organisations about what are the ethical decision making processes,’” she said, describing some of the conversations. But the ethics guide isn’t a Magic 8 Ball: “The nature of the dilemma means it’s going to be difficult and whatever choice you make is probably still going to be controversial,” Timmins said.

Relieve the chief: There are days left to throw your hat in the ring to be the UN’s head humanitarian. Martin Griffiths announced he would step down by the end of June, citing long COVID. Applications for his position (official title: under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator) are due on 20 May by midnight. A UK passport, it should be noted, is not an official prerequisite.

  • ‘Decoupled from political ambitions’: The International Council for Voluntary Agencies is among the latest to weigh in on the quest to find a new relief chief. The head of the humanitarian NGO network has sent a letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres calling for a “transparent, merit-based and values-based” recruitment based “solely on merit and decoupled from the political ambitions of any UN member state”, in a reference to what has been a barely concealed convention of horse-trading key UN positions. “Given the urgency and scale of human suffering we face today, selecting the most qualified individual to serve as the ERC is of paramount importance,” Jamie Munn, ICVA’s executive director, wrote in the 25 April letter, which was shared with The New Humanitarian.


ERC: For a while, one of the relief chief’s job titles, emergency relief coordinator, was part of the unofficial name for the Griffiths-backed pilot reform plan to make aid more accountable to people who use it: “the Emergency Relief Coordinator’s Flagship Initiative”, or in more casual parlance, “Martin’s Flagship”. The programme is now being trialled in four countries: Niger, South Sudan, the Philippines, and Colombia. E, R, and C have been dropped; it’s now called – simply, but still “ludicrously”, according to Griffiths – the Flagship Initiative.

ERC: But the letters live on in one pilot country. In the Philippines, the project is dubbed “ERC Flagship Initiative” in official documents. But here, the letters have morphed into “enhancing resilient communities.”

Data points|

TikTok is reportedly suing the US government in a bid to block legislation that would ban the app.

Like many corporations, TikTok has a mild philanthropic streak when it comes to humanitarian response. In 2022, TikTok (or its parent company, ByteDance) was a top-25 donor to the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, CERF. At the time, it was the largest single private donation to the UN’s quick-response pooled fund.*

A few others who have kicked in a bit of private cash: a Yoko Ono fundraising campaign, Jan Egeland (the Norwegian Refugee Council boss who oversaw CERF’s launch when he was ERC), and a fan club for singer Kim Hyun-joong, a former member of second-generation K-pop boyband SS501.

FYI: The Vatican (listed as an observer) offered up $20,000 between 2008 and 2011, when Benedict was pope.

End quote|

“The contents of this report were entirely human generated. No content created with artificial intelligence tools is included in this report.”

Call it a sign of the times. A new Humanitarian Practice Network paper takes a temperature check on the sector’s AI fever – and leads with an AI disclaimer. 

* Note: Data for the table showing private CERF contributions were sorted and processed using generative AI. A human checked the final numbers for accuracy. Have any tips, recommendations, or indecipherable acronyms to share with the Inklings newsletter? Get in touch: [email protected]

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