A Hippocratic Oath for Humanitarians

BLOG_billbicknellMy former professor Bill Bicknell (happy guy in the photo) told us to always remember the melon lady. He challenged each student who aspired to work in global health to remember that our decisions around how to spend program budgets and design activities could have a greater impact on life or death in a community or a country than the choices of a physician around patient care. And he always started his global health policy class with these words: Public health is the art and science of deciding who dies, when, and with what degree of misery. Basing your work on the inverse (deciding who lives longer and with more dignity) doesn’t force you to focus on the consequences when you fail.

Today, J., now writing at Aid Speak and formerly at Tales from the Hood, postulated that a Hippocratic oath for humanitarians should be a required reflection for new and aspiring aid workers. In the midst of commitments to building local capacity, supporting evidence-based programs, and remembering the human element of providing relief and system strengthening services, were two lines that deserve bold highlights:

I will respect the privacy of beneficiaries and aid recipients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life or to improve well-being, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to affect – perhaps adversely – the livelihoods and well-being of individuals, of families, perhaps of entire communities; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not deal with abstract numbers, statistics, or concepts, but human beings suffering as the result of disaster, conflict, or poverty. My responsibility includes understanding context, culture, and root causes if I am to claim the title and status of “humanitarian.” This holds regardless of whether I am based in a “field” context and interact directly with beneficiaries, or based far from the “field” and serve in a support or administrative role, and regardless of whether I am expatriate or national staff.

If this is an oath we all think about & take to heart, Professor Bicknell will be proud: in more fancy words, these commitments reinforce the importance of remembering the melon lady.

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