Navigating Ethical Dilemmas for Humanitarian Action in Afghanistan

By Mark Bowden, Hameed Hakimi, Paul Harvey, Ghulam Rasool Moosakhel, Orzala Nemat, Abby Stoddard, Manisha Thomas, Nigel Timmins, Torsten Voigt
June 2023

The most challenging moral dilemmas involve choosing between two objectively negative outcomes. In Afghanistan, the international aid sector faces a wrenching decision: whether to uphold universal human rights values by refusing to comply with the Taliban’s edicts against employing women, or to prioritise the humanitarian imperative to continue providing what aid they can to millions in need. The decision to stay is complicated by the reality that effective in-person aid programming requires female staff to effectively reach women and girls. In this context, aid groups have found partial – albeit suboptimal – solutions through workarounds and low-profile local negotiation strategies, capitalising on the decentralised nature of power structures across the provinces in Afghanistan.

While initially understanding that they were exempt from the ban, the UN humanitarian agencies now confront the same dilemma as NGOs. While an Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC)-led process has developed a framework and set of criteria for programming for an initial trial period, aid agency staff interviewed for the most part felt that they had been left to grapple with these issues individually, with limited political leadership or guidance from the international diplomatic or donor community. A rapid review – encompassing roughly 250 interviews with humanitarian providers and recipients in Afghanistan, an opinion survey of Afghan women, and a review of the humanitarian ethics literature – set out to provide a timely analysis of the ethical dilemmas facing humanitarian action in Afghanistan.


Suggested Citation


Bowden, M., Hakimi H., Harvey, P., Nemat, O., Moosakhel, G-R., Stoddard, A., Thomas, M., Timmins, N., Voight, T. (2023). Navigating Ethical Dilemmas for Humanitarian Action in Afghanistan. Humanitarian Outcomes, June.