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Can humanitarian workers be both professional and principled?


As mentioned above, the development of the principles was actually the “crystallization” of the long experience of Red Cross and Red Crescent humanitarian workers. In that sense, it contributed to the professionalization of the sector, in the real sense of the word.

Donors and organisations, however, have often understood professionalization as the adoption of professional standards of the business sector or administration in opposition to the perceived “amateurism” of the past. As Fabrice Weissman of MSF has noted in mapping the state of the humanitarian sector, “One of the main issues, in my opinion, is the phenomenon of bureaucratization: more and more resources are allocated to the management of organizations, to the detriment of the social mission” (ICRC translation from French).

While humanitarian organizations need to constantly strive to progress and increase their effectiveness in order to provide services to human beings in need, the measurement of their performance may not follow the same criteria as are found in the private sector. Corporate professional standards of performance (which resurface in contemporary discussions on “value for money” delivery of humanitarian assistance) may not capture the human dimension of suffering and the human response to it. Supporting and restoring human dignity is not the mechanical outcome of a process, and adhesion to the principles needs to – and can – be factored in. Respect for the principles may be the real mark of a truly professional humanitarian sector. This should be remembered in the future, when humanitarian assistance may be outsourced to private companies leading to what might be considered a privatization of aid.


This official side event of the 2015 ECOSOC Humanitarian Affairs Segment gathered senior Red Cross Red Crescent representatives, the Ambassador of Mexico to the UN, the Secretary General of the Lebanese Red Cross and a major scholar of humanitarianism to discuss whether neutrality and independence can be guarantors of effectiveness for all actors, in all circumstances? (ICRC Geneva, June 2015)

If one looks for a third way between charitable amateurism on the one hand and
 mercenarism of
 charity on the other, humanitarian principles may well be pointing in the right direction – hence the growing interest in the development of good humanitarian leadership, where the principles could be a key source of inspiration for decision-making and action. Humanitarian actors also need to maintain their attractiveness to young, motivated professionals, including volunteers, and there again, adhesion to the principles can act as a powerful force of motivation for enthusiastic new recruits and cementing the cohesion of the humanitarian workforce.

In her piece “From Fundamental Principles to individual action”, Katrien Beeckman Katrien Beeckman, Former Head of the Principles and Values Department Katrien Beeckman has been the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ Head of the Principles and Values Department, in charge of guiding the membership on the promotion of a culture of non-violence and peace (Strategic Aim 3, Strategy 2020) since 2008. She holds a PhD in international law (Graduate Institute Geneva, 2003), and prior to joining the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, she worked in academia, at the United Nations and for non- governmental organizations in the areas of education, values and human rights. explains how to make the Fundamental Principles come alive in people’s behaviour by nurturing the humanitarian values that underpin them, such as respect for diversity, equality, dialogue, non-violence and mutual understanding. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has adopted this most innovative approach to the inculcation of the principles through experiential learning at the individual level in the training of volunteers and staff.

To complete the overview of the practice of principles, the Review edition on “Humanitarian Principles” also hosts three pieces on particular principles and working methods of two so-called “dunantist” humanitarian organizations. In “Changing interpretations of the Charter of Médecins Sans Frontières” Caroline Abu Sa’da Caroline Abu Sa’da, Head of the Research Unit on Humanitarian Stakes and Practices Dr Caroline Abu Sa’Da holds a doctorate in political science and heads the Research Unit on Humanitarian Stakes and Practices (UREPH) of MSF Switzerland. and Xavier Crombé́ Xavier Crombé́, Former Director of Studies Xavier Crombé́ is a former Director of Studies at the Centre de Re ́flexion sur l’Action et les Savoirs Humanitaires (CRASH) of MSF France and is currently involved in the Medical Care Under Fire project run by MSF’s International Office. He is also a lecturer in humanitarian studies at Sciences Po in Paris. explore the meaning of the principle of voluntary service at MSF, particularly in relation to risk-taking. The article “Tools to do the job” by Els Debuf Els Debuf, Legal Adviser at ICRC Dr Els Debuf is Legal Adviser in the Office of the Head of the Legal Division of the International Committee of the Red Cross. She advises on issues related to the ICRC’s legal status, status agreements, and privileges and immunities. 
 on ICRC’s legal status, privileges and immunities and the ICRC Memorandum on the organization’s privilege of non-disclosure of confidential information clarify the ICRC’s working methods and explain the rationale behind them.