Ethics and Evidence – reply to Donal O’Mathuna

See also Ethics and Evidence by Donal O’Mathuna

It is a pleasure to respond to Donal O’Mathuna’s thoughtful blog. I agree with each one of his three main points. Together they make the case for evidence as an essential ethical commitment in humanitarian work.

Donal’s three points are crystal clear. First, it is right to make the most of what we know as true when we design and implement humanitarian programmes, and it is right to work hard to find out what we do not yet know.

Secondly, it is right to do research in a way that is respectful, caring and protective of people who are the subjects of our research.

Thirdly, it is also right to put evidence at the heart of reflections about our own humanitarian motivations. We must draw on honest psychological evidence to answer important personal questions of humanitarian vocation: am I doing it mostly to feel good myself or to help others. Is my humanitarian “passion” really about them or me?

So, if I agree with everything, how shall I proceed? By making the ethical case for evidence so well, Donal has imposed an ethical obligation on me to take the subject into more difficult territory. I must examine genuine problems with evidence in humanitarian action. In tennis terms, Donal’s perfect first serve has left me with a difficult return!

I will choose two particular difficulties with evidence in humanitarian action which each require a distinct ethical response. First, what should we do when we do not have enough evidence but need to act? Secondly, what should we do when the evidence is against us?

When there is not enough evidence

Humanitarian action is something of a science. We can gather information about all sorts of things – indicators of health, food security, livelihoods, numbers of people on the move, weather, potential violations of law, and much more. But, often, when it is already time to act we do not have all the evidence we need.

These problems of evidential deficit tend to arise most in two types of situation. When we do not know enough about a situation in which we are already working, and when we are forced to speculate and plan about something that has not yet happened but for which we must be ready.

The first scenario is common in the start-up phase of many humanitarian operations or when there are severe problems of access that makes detailed needs assessment impossible. The second is typified at this very moment by the imminent assault on the city of Mosul in Iraq. We know this may cause a dramatic escalation of needs so how should we appeal for funds and scale-up capacity now?

Evidential deficits

Ethics does not stop when things get difficult. Indeed, many would say that this is when it starts. And, when we cannot know for sure what the evidentially correct course of action is, we are required to do our best. This means using all our ethical faculties, and not just our reason, most notably deploying our judgement and practical wisdom.

Humanitarian judgement

So does this just mean guessing? Not really! It means contemplating the situation deeply, drawing on our experience, applying what we know to be good, having a deft sense of events, a gifted sense of timing and clear insight into what is likely and what is possible. Using our judgement also means being courageous enough to be wrong while hoping we are lucky enough to be right.

We all have judgement and we use it all the time, and we all have a basic practical wisdom that guides us in many of our decisions. Using humanitarian judgement is scary. It is the moment of walking up the pool into the deep end when there is no choice but to swim. But, this is the norm in many operations when good evidence runs out.

The important thing is to encourage judgement and cultivate practical wisdom in our humanitarian teams when evidence is in short supply.  Reward people for using it and be conscious of its place in humanitarian action.

Working against the evidence

A second ethical difficulty around evidence is not one of evidential deficit but the opposite problem when the evidence seems to be against us. What should we do when evidence suggests that people don’t care about the things we care about?

An example of this at the ICRC is our persistence in calling for greater respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) when it seems to be widely disrespected in many aspects of armed conflict today. These failures lead people to tell us that our commitment to IHL flies in the face of evidence which shows that some leaders and combatants in today’s wars do not care about IHL. They tell us that evidence suggests that, in some warring parties, our calls are falling on deaf ears.

Courage and the search for new evidence

The first challenge here is not to have one’s policy and programming skewed towards the noisiest part of current evidence. At the ICRC, we know from our experience that, in many instances today, IHL is respected. We have access, we can protect people, we can bring relief programmes and we can influence the conduct of hostilities in many parties to conflict.

Our challenge in the face of contrary evidence is, therefore, twofold. First, we need to produce evidence of these everyday experiences of respect for IHL. Secondly, we need to research these positive examples of the respect for IHL across a range of different contexts and actors to understand them better.

This approach means undertaking much more appreciative enquiry of what works in respecting IHL and not becoming mesmerized by the evidential debate around what does not work. This is what we are trying to do and we encourage others to do the same.

But there is a third challenge for us in all this too. Sometimes things are right to argue for even when evidence suggests that people prefer to pursue what is wrong and find reasons to suggest that it is better. In the ethical debate around IHL, these arguments typically go like this: being brutal makes for quicker wars; these are your laws not our laws; people deserve to experience the same treatment that they gave us; these people do not deserve to enjoy the protection of this law, respecting IHL is just operationally unrealistic.

On points like these, we are bound to engage States and other armed actors despite the evidence of a lack of respect in several conflicts and by several parties. States’ support for the Geneva Conventions mean they have achieved universal applicability in armed conflict and so should not be ignored.

More importantly, if we ourselves, have ethical and legal commitments we need the courage to struggle for them in the face of counter evidence. Ethics is always a struggle and we can be sure that others who have a different and unlawful view of what is right in war will be pushing their views hard.

More ideas welcome

These are just two ethical challenges around evidence in humanitarian action and some thoughts on solutions. I hope others will also respond to Donal’s first serve and my best effort at a return, and so continue this important discussion of ethics and evidence.

Dr Hugo Slim is Head of Policy at the ICRC and the author of Humanitarian Ethics: The Morality of Aid in War and Disasters, Hurst/OUP, 2015.