Application of this practical decision-making tool ranges from the tactical to the strategic for decision makers with different perspectives within or between agencies, in the field or at headquarters. It brings objectivity and rigour to the challenge of balancing humanitarian principles with practical choices in increasingly complex operating environments.


A series of questions examine the decision through four lenses – intent, impartiality, independence and impact. If they raise any doubts or serious concerns the decision is then subjected to further interrogation. The final step is implementation, comprising the final decision and action plan to address the issues identified through the process.


  • Ninety per cent of our decisions tend to be ad hoc, while 10 per cent are structured; a more balanced approach would be 50/50
       - Discussion with UN Humanitarian Coordinator, 2009

    In conflict- and disaster-affected situations, where tough humanitarian decisions are the norm, there is no shortage of commentators, advisers and experts who agree on what should be done and why, but few have concrete suggestions on how to develop and institutionalise practical and creative approaches to greater collaboration. Inevitably the impact of the aid dollar is severely diluted through fragmentation, short-termism, inconsistency and ad hoc decision-making. The same mistakes are repeated, and strategic planning and sustainability are casualties.

    In 2007, a prototype decision-making process was developed for practitioners to use in instances where black and white policies proved insufficient to deal with the trade-offs required in operations. A paper-based version of the process was tested first in situations of civil-military engagement on a 3-month basis in 22 country operations of the world’s biggest NGO, World Vision International.

    The decision-making process uses the principle of proportionality in human rights law to provide aid workers with a framework to navigate dilemmas requiring some kind of compromise or balancing act between different demands. It helps the users to assess whether a particular course of action that potentially compromises any of the main humanitarian operating principles has a compelling and legitimate aim, is appropriate, adapted and adequately informed to that aim, and has minimal negative impact.

  • Between 2007-2009, the process continued to be tested as opportunities arose at the inter-agency and single-agency levels, from Sri Lanka and Haiti, to Somalia and Georgia. Some agencies showed an interest in applying the process to situations such as whether to speak out in a situation, or to open operations in a new geographical area.

    In 2009, the process emerged as a leading contender for a consortium pilot project called Humanitarian Principles in Practice, led by the Overseas Development Institute. Various workshops were facilitated by strategy workshop specialists from Beechwood International in Pakistan for Oxfam, Save the Children, the UN, and Pakistan Humanitarian Forum. An International Crisis Group representative attended to explore ways for integrating analysis better into the decision-making process.

    This comprehensive but somewhat ad hoc approach has demonstrated enormous potential for the process to facilitate both tactical and strategic questions, but agencies have complained that there are insufficient resources to support further development and build adoption internally, let alone at the inter-agency level.

    In March 2010, the author of the process joined Beechwood as director of its non-corporate practice. The company responded to past feedback from the field by financing the next stage of product development and the creation of an innovative interactive online version (which works at very slow speeds, auto-saves onto personal computers while being used to allow for bad connections, and is as secure as an online banking website). During 2010-11, IRC and Save the Children have also worked with Beechwood to examine how the tool could enhance their internal management systems. Although the greatest added value is expected to flow from inter-agency use, firsthand experience with single agencies has resulted in the website design allowing for individual agencies to customise the content to suit internal management processes and unique mandates.

local context strategic alignment principles perceptions duty of care do no harm action sustainability