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PLoS Curr. 2014 Jun 23;6. pii: ecurrents.dis.96bec99f13800a8059bb5b5a82028bbf. doi: 10.1371/currents.dis.96bec99f13800a8059bb5b5a82028bbf.

Challenging Operations: An Ethical Framework to Assist Humanitarian Aid Workers in their Decision-making Processes.

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  • 1Institute of Biomedical Ethics, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.
  • 2Institute of Biomedical Ethics, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland; Division of Medical Ethics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.



This paper aims to raise awareness regarding ethical issues in the context of humanitarian action, and to offer a framework for systematically and effectively addressing such issues.


Several cases highlight ethical issues that humanitarian aid workers are confronted with at different levels over the course of their deployments. The first case discusses a situation at a macro-level concerning decisions being made at the headquarters of a humanitarian organization. The second case looks at meso-level issues that need to be solved at a country or regional level. The third case proposes an ethical dilemma at the micro-level of the individual patient-provider relationship.


These real-life cases have been selected to illustrate the ethical dimension of conflicts within the context of humanitarian action that might remain unrecognized in everyday practice. In addition, we propose an ethical framework to assist humanitarian aid workers in their decision-making process. The framework draws on the principles and values that guide humanitarian action and public health ethics more generally. Beyond identifying substantive core values, the framework also includes a ten-step process modelled on tools used in the clinical setting that promotes a transparent and clear decision-making process and improves the monitoring and evaluation of aid interventions. Finally, we recommend organizational measures to implement the framework effectively.


This paper uses a combination of public health/clinical ethics concepts and practices and applies them to the decision-making challenges encountered in relief operations in the humanitarian aid context.


Ethical framework; decision-making; disasters; humanitarian aid workers

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