As part of a course I'm doing, I attended a webinar recently on innovation. I'm not a fan of innovation. At least... that's a silly statement... of course I'm a fan of innovation but I'm not a fan of the recent fascination with innovation at the expense of anything else which appears to have infected the humanitarian and development sector(s). So I was sceptical. Boy, was I wrong. This PHAP session was one of the most interesting things I've done in the past couple of years of humanitarian work. Why? Because when was the last time we really though about ethical principles in terms of the work? Yes, of course I know about the origins of the sector, rooted in the principles - that's one of the main reasons I do what I do - but lately there seems to be a lot of talk about accountability and efficiency and overheads and not a lot of talk about ethics. It's not popular, any more, to think about and talk about and debate the ethics of the work. Not explicitly, anyway. But that's important. Why we do what we do cannot function without a serious philosophical commitment to reviewing the ethics of what we do. And here's the thing: the ethical principles they were talking about don't feel like they're just about innovation - they feel like they're a review of what the ethics of the sector are. Some of those arguing wanted to suggest that all of this was covered by the four humanitarian principles, but I'm not sure they're right. I really felt like this was the kind of ethical engagement that the work of the sector has been missing for a while.
Maybe I'm just missing it because I'm stuck at the arse end of the world. I sort of hope that's true. Either way, it's good to see that there are people in humanitarianism who are willing and able to engage with the ethical questions far beyond "donor requirements". These ethical principles feel like they could start a conversation that could push us all to reconsider why we do what we do and whether, ethically, half of what we do is really justifiable. Is it old-fashioned to consider ethics over, say, accountability, innovation and sustainability? I don't care. When I sat, trying to decide if I wanted to share these principles with my colleagues (not wanting to upset delicate balances or sensitive people), it was the moment I realised how far our sector may have strayed and how much I want to get back to ethics, not just in innovation but in all aspects of what we do.
Draft principles [pdf]