Assignment 4: The Double-Edged Sword

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was founded by Henri Dunant in 1863. Florence Nightingale and her work inspired Henri Dunant’s establishment of the ICRC and the creation of first Geneva Convention. The Red Cross principle of neutrality, “Humanitarianism is based on a presumed duty to ease human suffering unconditionally” (Polman 23), was closely realated to Nightingale’s belief’s on suffering. Her mindset, “Suffering lifts its victim above normal values. While suffering endures there is neither good nor bad, valuable nor invaluable, enemy nor friend. The victim has passed to a region beyond human classification or moral judgments and his suffering is a sufficient claim” (Red Cross 2013), became the foundation of today’s humanitarian aid. However, what a humanitarian aid is doing is not what its foundation ought to be.

The Red Cross emblem was officially approved in Geneva in 1863.

The Red Cross emblem was officially approved in Geneva in 1863.

There’s a clear gap between “is” and “ought.” In Linda Polman’s The Crisis Caravan, the Hutu government levied a war tax on all food rations from aid organizations. Furthermore, they used the collected tax to pay its army to keep hunting Tutsi (Polman 69). There are more examples where good intentions somehow became weapons of wars. In Liberia, warlords try to take off as large a proportion of the value of aid supplies at they can. In addition, “the president Charles Taylor demanded 15 percent of the value of aid, to be paid him in cash” (Polman 225).

It is a tragedy, but there’s an unintentional gap between “is” and “ought”. Based on the Red Cross principles of neutrality, the aid organizations in Goma were committed to help anybody they could (Polman 67). The conflicts between Tutsi and Hutu continued, resulting continued massacre of Hutu on Tutsi. Although it’s negative and illogical, people can argue and question the principle of neutrality of the Red Cross based solely on the result: “Has the compassionate neutrality killed extra Tutsi people?”

The ethical, social and cultural issues and dilemmas do not stop there. According to South Korea’s ministry of unification, South Korea has been providing a humanitarian aid to North Korea since 1995. In spite of North Korea’s nuclear test of 2009, and the attack of Yeonpyeongdo, where two civilians and two marines were killed, South Korea has provided the vaccines for novel influenza and the flood damage aids in 2009 and 2010 respectively (The ministry of unification’s administrative data 2013). South Korea is aware that their supports have not went directly to citizens in North Korea and South Korea is struggling facing the moral, ethical, and racial dilemmas toward North Korea.


The structure of humanitarian aid is not simple. The ICRC quoted, “well-intended but unwanted gifts that clog up airfields and logistical hubs” (Polman 123) emphasizing good hearts by themselves will not help anyone effectively. When I applied for Korea International Cooperation Agency as an international aid worker of Africa department last summer, I got rejected. Having various experiences of volunteer works, I couldn’t understand why I got rejected. I can answer this question with Jan Egeland’s quote: “You aren’t allowed to be amateurish if you are in the game of saving lives. The one human right that the poor and the vulnerable should have at the very least is to be protected from incompetence” (Polman 115). Balancing between humane neutrality and ability to look and perceive conflicts and issues keenly is a key to narrowing the gap between the is and the ought.


“Aid Project for North Korea Index.” Nara Index. The ministry of unification’s administrative data, 04 Apr 2013. Web. <>.

“Florence Nightingale and the Red Cross.” Historical factsheets. British Red Cross, 2013. Web. <>.

Polman, Linda. The Crisis Caravan. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010. Print


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  1. Posted June 13, 2013 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed reading about he “unwanted” gifts and donations that actually clog up the humanitarian effort. I was glad to see you mention this in your post because it is an issue that I think we do not think of often enough.

  2. Posted June 13, 2013 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    I was born in South Korea and as a result am really interested in Korean affairs, so I especially liked how you touched upon the political circumstances surrounding South Korean aid to North Korea. I would be very curious to find out whether or not South Korea is planning on continuing aid (specifically financial aid) to North Korean citizens if North Korea will continue to engage in “war games” with its South Korean counterpart.