The Principle of Humanity in Disaster and Emergency Management

by Colin Belshaw, Tito Bonde, Darren Butt, Lindsay Durvin, Teron Moore, Jean-Claude Morel, and Bill Sparling


Humanitarianism drives benevolent efforts in organizations, agencies and governments to provide assistance to communities, regions and countries suffering crisis.  Humanitarianism is a process that requires significant effort and organization to realize.  In order to understand the nature of humanitarianism, one needs to understand the nature of humanity.  Based on our review of the literature, we have defined humanity as the quality of being humane, which has at its base an entrenchment of altruism, selflessness and empathy towards humans. While the definition of humanity continues to be debated, the emergence of the concept of humanity as a rallying cry for change and positive development is more widely accepted, especially with the emergence and development of the disaster and emergency management (DEM) discipline.

The most important principles of humanitarian action are humanity, which posits the conviction that all people have equal dignity by virtue of their membership in humanity, impartiality, which directs that assistance is provided based solely on need, without discrimination among recipients, neutrality, which stipulates that humanitarian organizations must refrain from taking part in hostilities or taking actions that advantage one side of the conflict over another, and independence, which is necessary to ensure that humanitarian action only serves the interests of war victims, and not political, religious, or other agendas. (Nicholas de Torrente, Executive Director of MSF-USA)

There are several elements of humanitarianism which make its application appropriate in emergency and disaster relief.

Key Elements of Humanitarianism

The key elements are: impartiality; sensitivity, dignity, and needs based assistance free of commercial or political gain.


Impartiality refers to fair and equitable assistance provided to citizens without any adverse distinction. (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).  The distinction may refer to nationality, race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, class, gender, disability, age and political opinion, ensuring equality of outcome (Sphere, 2004, p. 12; IFRC, p. 3; Humanitarian Accountability Partnership, 2007, p. 8 (HAP)).  Initiatives developed in response to the needs of a community must acknowledge the special capacities and unique perspectives of groups that make up the community, but the initiatives must resist their relegation. (Gender and Disaster Network, p. 3 (Gender)).


The same type of assistance may not be appropriate for all. The psychosocial impacts of the disaster vary on a personal, cultural and national level, as do the physical and economic needs. (Gender, p. 1).  Awareness of physical, cultural and social barriers in accessing services and support must be acknowledged.  DEM must remain sensitive to the culture and customs of the communities in which we are immersed. (Sphere, p. 318).


Providing assistance with kindness, dignity, community empowerment through local involvement and not treating those affected as victims are crucial humanitarian acts required in assisting affected individuals. (HAP, p. 1; Gender, p. 2; Sphere, p. 5).

Needs based assistance

Needs Based Assistance, free of commercial or political gain should be provided. (Good Humanitarian Donorship, 2003, p. 1).  Red Cross Guidelines further explains that aid priorities should not seek to further political or religious standpoints or obtain any commercial gains (IFRC, p. 1), nor should they focus on high profile media tasks. (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 1994, p. 1 (IFRC 1994). Assistance should adapt to the needs of the beneficiaries should their sought after input indicate a shift is necessary (HAP, p. 1; IFRC 1994, p. 4) and be proportionate to the level of suffering. (Sphere, p. 316)

The principle of humanity as described in these key elements has implications for DEM in each of the five pillars of DEM: prevention, preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery.

Humanitarianism in The Five Pillars of DEM


Although prevention can have a more inclusive definition, for the purposes of the following illustration, we use the term to mean intentional measures taken to stop an act, or acts of terrorism.  Humanitarian interventions in Somalia in 1992 and Rwanda in 1994 are examples of prevention in the terrorism context.  In the Somalia case, early intervention prevented 100,000 lives from being lost.  Tragically, in Rwanda, the international community was given neither the mandate nor the resources to affect an armed intervention, and tragically could not prevent the ensuing genocide.  Examples of humanitarian intervention that meet the key elements of impartiality; sensitivity, dignity, and needs based assistance free of commercial or political gain, are not often met.  Therefore, on what principles or in accordance with what policy framework should the DEM community consider such acts? (Moore, 2007).  We face a dilemma: Is aid withheld in the face of impending genocide in order to ensure impartiality or neutrality a better humanitarian solution than aid delivered with armed forces who may have selfish interests beyond humanitarianism?


Preparedness can be defined as: equipping people in advance of a disaster, with the appropriate resources.  Preparedness based on the key elements of humanitarianism is not always easy, or in some cases possible.  The article “Weathering the Storm” reports the state of disaster communications preparedness for Hurricane Katrina. (Guion, Scammon, Borders, & Aberdeen, 2007). Failures in communications by officials responsible for disaster preparedness resulted in significant loss of life that was preventable.  Proximate causes reported ranged from various levels of competency to malfeasance.  Criminal convictions resulted from several of the latter.  Recommendations for improvements in communications preparedness include the use of social marketing techniques including use of mass media and commercial retailers to provide public knowledge and shape individuals behaviour in impending disaster situations.


Mitigation is described as those actions which decrease the likelihood and impact of disaster occurrence.  The two types of mitigation are: structural and non-structural.  Structural refers to physical activities such as erecting barriers, modifying structures, and relocating communities.  Non-structural mitigation includes educating people, modifying behaviour, and insuring properties against loss.  In Gujarat India, the Self Employed Woman’s Association (SEWA) helps the community mitigate risks associated with frequent droughts, floods and earthquakes – common events in the area.  SEWA’s aim is to increase employment security through the development of childcare, healthcare, education and training, housing, insurance and savings programs.  Though self organization and bottom-up development, SEWA is able to provide impartial, needs-based assistance that gives local beneficiaries dignity as they help themselves mitigate the risks of common disasters.


Response is defined as actions taken prior to, during, and immediately after a disaster that are aimed at limiting injuries, loss of life, and damage to property and the environment. (Coppola, 2007).  Response processes begin as soon as it becomes apparent that a disaster is imminent and lasts until the emergency is declared to be over.  Immediate response may not be appropriate or even permitted in complex humanitarian emergencies.  In early 2002 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), local authorities and those from neighbouring Rwanda were unwilling to accept the UN’s impartial approach when addressing Demobilisation, Disarmament and Reintegration issues related to the relocation of their respective citizens which were involved in the previous armed conflict to assist in the relocation of citizens who were affected by an earlier conflict.  However, during the aftermath of the eruption of the Nyiragongo, the same authorities were willing to allow an estimated 300,000 individuals to flee from DRC to Rwanda and back to DRC once the situation had returned to normal.


Recovery is defined as returning people’s lives back to a normal state following the impact of a disaster. (Coppola).  As observed elsewhere, theory and practice may be in conflicting frames.  Drought and famine occurred during a conflict in Ethiopia.  International humanitarian assistance further fuelled the conflict. (Milas, Seifulaziz & Abdel, and actually delayed recovery.  The practical application of humanitarian assistance must take into account all of the factors in the situation.  On occasion, all of the elements of humanity may not be achievable, and flexibility in the practice of DEM is required.


Humanitarianism across the five pillars of DEM should generally demonstrate the key elements: impartiality, sensitivity, dignity and needs based assistance.  The implementation of humanitarian assistance however can be challenging when the constraints of contextual reality limit the practical application of the ideal.


Coppola, D. (2007). Introduction to International Disaster Management. Oxford, UK: Elsevier.

Gender and Disaster Network. Six Principles for Engendered Relief and Reconstruction. Retrieved from http// .

Guion, Deirdre T., Scammon, D., Borders, and Aberdeen L. (2007). Weathering the Storm: A Social Marketing Perspective on Disaster Preparedness and Response with Lessons from Hurricane Katrina. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing. Vol. 26 Issue 1, 20-32.

Good Humanitarian Donorship. (2003) Principles and Good Practice of Humanitarian Donorship.  Retrieved from

Humanitarian Accountability Partnership. (2007). 2007 Standards in Humanitarian Quality and Accountability. CT: Graphics Press.  Retrieved from .

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Guidelines for the Domestic Facilitation and Regulation of International Disaster Relief and Initial Recovery Assistance.  Retrieved from

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. (1994). Code of Conduct for International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) in Disaster Relief. Retrieved from

Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). (2007). IASC Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychological Support in Emergency Settings. Geneva: IASC.

Moore, J. (2007). Deciding humanitarian intervention. Social Research. Vol. 74 Issue 1, 169-200.

Sphere. (2004). The Sphere Project. (5-20, 313-324). UK: Oxfam.  Retrieved from