Article Text


‘He who helps the guilty, shares the crime’? INGOs, moral narcissism and complicity in wrongdoing
  1. Pete Buth1,
  2. Benoit de Gryse2,
  3. Sean Healy2,
  4. Vincent Hoedt2,
  5. Tara Newell2,
  6. Giovanni Pintaldi3,
  7. Hernan del Valle2,
  8. Julian C Sheather4,
  9. Sidney Wong2
  1. 1 Medecins Sans Frontieres, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  2. 2 Medecins Sans Frontieres, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  3. 3 Medecins Sans Frontieres, Rome, Italy
  4. 4 British Medical Association, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Julian C Sheather, British Medical Association, London SW179PX, UK; jsheather{at}


Humanitarian organisations often work alongside those responsible for serious wrongdoing. In these circumstances, accusations of moral complicity are sometimes levelled at decision makers. These accusations can carry a strong if unfocused moral charge and are frequently the source of significant moral unease. In this paper, we explore the meaning and usefulness of complicity and its relation to moral accountability. We also examine the impact of concerns about complicity on the motivation of humanitarian staff and the risk that complicity may lead to a retreat into moral narcissism. Moral narcissism is the possibility that where humanitarian actors inadvertently become implicated in wrongdoing, they may focus more on their image as self-consciously good actors than on the interests of potential beneficiaries. Moral narcissism can be triggered where accusations of complicity are made and can slew decision making. We look at three interventions by Médecins Sans Frontières that gave rise to questions of complicity. We question its decision-guiding usefulness. Drawing on recent thought, we suggest that complicity can helpfully draw attention to the presence of moral conflict and to the way International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) can be drawn into unintentional wrongdoing. We acknowledge the moral challenge that complicity presents to humanitarian staff but argue that complicity does not help INGOs make tough decisions in morally compromising situations as to whether they should continue with an intervention or pull out.

  • Ethics
  • International Affairs
  • Ngos
  • War

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  • Contributors JCS has been the principal author and editor. He has taken case studies, examples and commentary and suggestions from the other authors and edited and adapted the manuscript over time. PB has provided detailed editorial comment, reflected on the case studies and made conceptual suggestions in relation to the structure of the paper. BdG has provided detailed editorial and drafting commentary and was one of the lead authors in relation to the material on Myanmar. SH provided detail commentary in relation both to the Jordanian berm and Myanmar. He provided detailed editorial commentary on the conceptual material and the paper’s structure. VH was instrumental in developing some of the conceptual material relating to complicity in the specific humanitarian context. He made extensive contributions on both the case studies and the conceptual material. TN made specific contributions to the case studies and made extensive editorial suggestions, which were incorporated during several of the paper’s earlier drafts. GP made extensive comments and suggestions on all versions of the manuscript. HdV provided extensive comments on all stages of the manuscript production. SW worked closely with the primary author in conceiving the scope and focus of the paper, provided detailed comments on the case studies and conceptual material and was involved in extensive discussion with the other MSF authors throughout the development of the paper.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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