By Amelia Hood,


The Ethics of Preparedness in Humanitarian Disasters, a 2017-2018 Practical Ethics awardee from investigators Sarah Parkinson and Valerie De Koeijer, deals with the ethical challenges professionals who work in or adjacent to humanitarian disasters, such as those triggered by war, face. The everyday ethics in disaster-affected areas are often malleable, changing, and informally-enforced. Best practices and behaviors are even harder to define for professionals, such as journalists, academic researchers, and humanitarian workers, who are often outsiders who come into these areas to engage the people living there, and then to leave, taking information, stories, data, and more with them. In their conversations with these professionals, the investigators noticed individuals’ widespread desire to do their work ethically, and the roadblocks and moral conflicts they attempted to navigate.


Given varied professional codes of ethics that often lack enforcement mechanisms, journalists, researchers, and humanitarian workers not only risk diminishing the quality of their own work, but they also risk worsening existing tensions or re-opening old wounds in the communities in which they work. A recent example of the consequences of reckless journalism is the exploitation of Yazidi survivors of ISIS rule and captivity. Many journalists focused on just one aspect of the Yazidi experience—the systemic and brutal sexual violence faced by women. Journalists’ singular focus on these stories—and specifically, multiple journalists’ repeated demands for women to re-tell their stories—often led to a second source of women’s traumatization. Women were often coerced into sharing their stories, faced danger by being identified, and felt betrayed by journalists who—intentionally or unintentionally—made promises they couldn’t keep in exchange for the survivors’ stories. Focusing on these stories also silenced other aspects of the experience of living under ISIS rule, denying other survivor groups the same attention and resources they needed to heal.


Some academic researchers and humanitarian workers have also contributed to distrust of all foreigners in disadvantaged and suffering communities. In biomedical research, especially, there is a long history of colonialist practices and affiliations, and an unsteady record of respect for dignity and human rights of different ethnic or minority groups. Humanitarian organizations often provide a code of conduct for their workers, but they have also been plagued by recent scandals and widespread worker burnout.


While the everyday ethical navigation of a disaster-affected area has never been clear or easy, the nature of the work of these professions is also evolving, with new and ever-changing issues to consider. In journalism, the increasingly common use of freelance workers leaves individual journalists without training or resources to navigate disaster-affected areas. A freelance journalist might be more willing to take risks in order to be able to better sell a story to a news outlet. Academics face a similar problem—limited funding puts pressure on researchers to be more “original”—and perhaps risky—in their research. Codes of research ethics vary across academic fields. Humanitarian organizational codes of conduct tend to focus on the exchange of money and preventing corruption, but not on the ethical challenges of the actual delivery of aid and interactions with suffering communities. These structural and organizational issues can inhibit individuals’ ability to act ethically in their professions.


The investigators on this Practical Ethics project are engaging individuals in these professions in order to understand the ways in which ethical issue-spotting take place in disaster-affected areas. Their initial findings suggest that while formal professional standards are usually agreed upon, the broader and more context-specific tenets of ethical behavior are often judged and enforced through whisper networks and by ostracizing bad actors. Bringing these conversations to the forefront is important, not to formalize or encode them, but to make them easier to have and to learn from others who might face similar challenges in other professions or in other parts of the world. Journalists, academic researchers, and humanitarian workers can learn from each other about professional ethics—about what works and what doesn’t. With a stronger sense of preparedness, these professionals can do better, more just work in disaster-affected areas.



The Practical Ethics Symposium will be held on November 14 in Feinstone Hall at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. The Symposium will feature presentations from all of the 2018 awardees of the JHU Exploration of Practical Ethics Program. Follow this link for more information and to RSVP to the Symposium.


Image via Flickr: LicenseAttribution Some rights reserved by DFID – UK Department for International Development

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Amelia Hood

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