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What’s wrong with impartiality?

‘Impartiality is ethically simplistic and routinely falls victim to bias by humanitarian workers.’

(Kylee Pedersen/TNH)

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The principle of impartiality is one of humanitarianism’s most important ethical commitments and routinely pronounced by humanitarians as if it were crystal clear and self-evidently right. But is it?

The principle, according to the Red Cross, dictates that humanitarians should “make no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinion and endeavour only to relieve suffering, giving priority to the most urgent cases of distress”. Impartiality defines fairness in humanitarian acts and is widely assumed to be a rock solid measure of good humanitarian aid.

At first glance, this seems simple and right. Of course, humanitarian aid should not be racist, politically driven, religiously biased, or only help middle-class people. And, when humanitarians cannot help everyone, then it makes good sense to prioritise aid distributions “on the basis of need alone” – another phrase that stands for impartiality. This sounds like the best sort of moral common sense and a clear guide for humanitarians that helps them decide what to do when faced with competing needs.

In fact, impartiality is ethically simplistic and routinely falls victim to bias by humanitarian workers. Three questions soon start to show what’s wrong with impartiality.

Which needs?

Impartiality implies that prioritising needs is ethically easy and that human suffering can fit a simple hierarchy that clarifies “the most urgent cases of distress” as the sickest, the hungriest, and the most disrespected. But as COVID-19 has shown, this is not true. In reality, humanitarian policy is constantly pulled between competing human needs. Every society in the pandemic has been torn between saving lives or livelihoods; prioritising patients, hospitals, and vaccinations or business continuity and human contact.

Pandemics aside, impartiality glosses over the fact that urgent distress takes many forms, and wars and disasters mean people die of bullets and floods today, and of the resulting poverty tomorrow. So where should you invest your aid to impartially meet urgent need? And who determines the priorities? 

There is no simple answer.

Nor are human needs just bodily. Sometimes people are willing to suffer physical distress to secure their political needs. Life and health are not their greatest need. In Myanmar today, many people resisting military dictatorship do not want humanitarian aid to break their boycott and restart state hospitals and schools. People have prioritised a political struggle for democracy over other needs. Hunger strikers always remind us that biological needs are not the only ones we have, as they challenge the “life bias” in humanitarian impartiality’s view of human need.

Humanitarians often breach the impartiality principle themselves when policy trends change the hierarchy of urgent needs. Humanitarian policy makers regularly “discover” new needs that don’t always match people’s priorities – for example, the provision of big investments in mental health support. People might prefer more help with jobs, shelter, schooling, and land rights, but policy trends gather a momentum of their own in donor capitals and create an alternative hierarchy of needs. That again shows that aid is not always impartially based on need alone.

Finally, humanitarians invest considerable sums in meeting their own needs for staff security, good living conditions, generous salaries, and comfortable travel. This prioritisation involves discrimination in which humanitarians prioritise themselves much more than people in greater distress. Such self-interested choices need justification and may not always be impartial.

Where is justice?

Impartiality’s emphasis on “need alone” is not just simplistic and inconsistent. It is also ethically inadequate on the question of justice.

It treats everybody equally, regardless of what they have done. Impartiality prioritises people as deserving according to how much they are damaged and not by how much they have damaged others.

Impartiality’s moral blindness can produce injustice: Five hundred people whose family members have been killed and their villages destroyed may receive less aid dollars than 50 demobilised fighters who hurt that community but are now enrolled in reintegration schemes.

“Impartiality prioritises people as deserving according to how much they are damaged and not by how much they have damaged others.”

Such moral myopia sees only lives, not justice, and is often accompanied in war by legal myopia too. A middle-aged civilian in life-threatening physical distress because they are “war wounded” may be urgently transported to hospital by humanitarians for expensive war surgery, while a teenager five kilometres away with deadly cerebral malaria may not. Discrimination based on humanitarian, refugee, or other law – rather than need – creates injustice too.

What about the environment?

The third question may be unfair to ask of humanitarianism because it is a moral project dedicated to humanity. But it seems right to ask it today because humanitarian agencies have embarked on an environmental “turn”, noting their own impact and recognition of climate change.

So, is humanitarian impartiality too anthropocentric? It speaks only of the importance of human needs, but what about non-human life and non-human distress? Impartiality should now be reframed to take account of nature’s needs as we increasingly place human needs in the wider context of ecological ethics.

Humanitarians currently value the natural world around them for its utility in meeting human needs and conserving “our” environment. We value human life as a good in itself, but see non-human life instrumentally, as a means to human survival: water, firewood, animals, and productive land. This needs correcting. Plant and animal life have intrinsic value too, and should be weighed as such in calculations of impartiality and need. Ecological distress should sometimes trump human need.

In operational terms, respect for ecological needs poses trade-offs between human life and non-human life. Should humanitarians always prioritise human needs? If an aid agency is delivering food and health supplies in an area where biodiversity is threatened, perhaps they should reduce some of the food and medicines on every shipment and replace it with seedlings, insects, and fish to re-wild an endangered area. The need to meet some human needs should be discounted in a more important effort to save non-human life.

This new environmental question is just one more among many. But all the same, it’s important to ask.

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