The duty of care: ‘reconfiguring’ humanitarian workers through risk relations

This post is part of a series linked to the workshop “Assessing the Anthropology of Humanitarianism: Ethnography, Impact, Critique”.



 Humanitarian organizations are incrementally adopting sophisticated ‘risk management’ systems that cover not only security and safety, but also economic, legal, reputational and operational aspects. In protecting their staff from ‘risk’, organizations have shifted the focus of policy design from operational failure towards preventive risk control measures that simultaneously tame and create additional (unmanaged) uncertainties in form of risk (Power 2009).

Although ‘the duty of care’ is increasingly perceived as an important standard to achieve ‘safety’, this paper argues that in practice, the duty of care creates a tension between attaining the humanitarian [organizational] project and protecting the staff, constantly reconfiguring humanitarian workers from objects at risk (to be protected) into risk objects (posing a threat to the realization of the humanitarian project). I provide a reading of the contemporary HSE Norwegian legislation and the relational theory of risk to explore how ‘the duty of care’ is articulated around relations of risk (Boholm & Corvellec 2011).


“Keeping out of harms way”

The changing legal requirements for humanitarian NGOs in Norway realized a reading of employer-employee relationships termed “ the duty of care”. The notion of ‘the duty of care’ refers to an obligation manifested in two categories: moral and legal. The moral duty of care derives from the responsibilities that arise from the consecution of an organizational project. In Norway, the legal duty of care is often framed in the language of HSE-related regulations. It denotes the “obligation imposed on an individual or organization requiring that they adhere to a standard of reasonable care while performing acts (or omissions) that present a reasonably foreseeable risk of harm to others” (Kemp & Merkelbach 2011: 20).

In the context of humanitarian action, the notion of ‘the duty of care’ is translated in a binary structure of collective and individual responsibility, where the organization is obliged “to manage and address foreseable risks, which will be context-specific” to protect their staff and assets (Nobert & Williamson 2017: 2–3). Humanitarian workers are expected to individually ‘manage’ risk, not only identifying and controlling risks but also in ‘taking’ or ‘accepting’ certain risks (Kendra 2007: 32) considered ‘reasonable’ and ‘expected’ from humanitarian fieldwork activities.


Managing uncertainty

In quantitative terms, risk is usually conceptualized by a ‘set of triplets’ (Garrick & Christie 2008: 18) that combines probability and consequence (Kaplan & Garrick 1981; Garrick & Christie 2008: chap. 2). In this manner, risk is described as the statistical probability of an outcome in combination with the severity of its effect (cost) which is estimated in money, deaths or affectations to health (Boholm 2003: 160–61; Hansson 2010).

The distinction between uncertainty and risk can also be linked with a “dynamic of organizing to produce decidability and actionability”. Subsequently, uncertainties become risks when they are incorporated into management systems for identification, assessment and mitigation. Since the mid 1990s the division between uncertainty and risk is essentially an “institutional and managerial distinction between those events and issues that are expected to be treated within management systems as ‘risk’ and those which are not”. Uncertainty is converted into risk when it becomes a target to be managed. Accordingly, when uncertainty is organized, it converts into “‘risk’ to be managed”  (Power 2009: 5–7).


Only that which is valued can be at risk

Noticing that there was a scholarly gap in the examination of the conceptual structure of social definitions of risk, Hilgartner (1992: 40) claimed “definitions of particular risks include at least three conceptual elements, an object deemed to “pose” the risk, a putative harm, and a linkage alleging some form of causation between the object and the harm.” In assessing risk, the fundamental question is not ‘what is risk?’, but ‘how do people understand something as risk?’

This shifted the conceptualization of risk from a static variable (of hazard, institutional factors, interests, organizational structures) into risk as a dynamic feature of social relations (Boholm & Corvellec 2011: 176; Boholm 2003: 175).

An object can only be defined as risky in a two-step process: initially, through its construction as object in itself, and later through the establishment of a linkage between this object and a putative harm. This approach implies, first, that the notion of value is fundamental to any conceptualization of risk (Aven & Renn 2009: 1–2; Rosa 1998: 28; Sellke & Renn 2010: 297). Simply put, “for an object to be considered ‘at risk’, it must be ascribed some kind of value”. The second implication is that “value and relationships are culturally situated” (Boholm & Corvellec 2011: 177–78).

The fact that risk varies according to social structure, institutions and values (Douglas 1986) implies that conceptions of risk are ‘biased’ and embedded within values and beliefs. Risk is a dynamic relationship of value, composed of three conceptual elements: risk objects, referring to something that is considered dangerous; an object at risk, an entity endowed with worthiness; and a causal linkage or relationship of risk, provided by an observer. In this framework, value sits at the heart of defining or not something as risk because “different actors might identify risk differently depending on what exactly they value and why” (Boholm 2015: 163).


Humanitarian workers reconfigured: Scalability between ‘risk objects’ and ‘objects at risk’

The duty of care positions humanitarian workers in a problematic conceptual space in which lines of difference between “safe” and “unsafe” behaviour, as well as boundaries between insiders and outsiders and day-to-day actions of incorporation and exclusion (Harvey & Knox 2015: 118) are both fluid and reinforced. The concern for safety is often undermined by creating associations and dissociations between the humanitarian project and designated risk objects and objects at risk. By way of evaluating whether the project is ‘safe’ on a risk-by-risk basis, successful risk treatment is a process by which previous levels of ‘riskiness’ are downgraded by way of ‘controlling’ (Boholm 2015: 162; Corvellec & Boholm 2008: 635).

When humanitarian workers are selected as an ‘object at risk’, the responsibility for their protection in the form of the duty of care is collectivized, and the organization (HFR) ‘safeguards’ their well-being through adequate risk management. When humanitarian workers fail in their duty of care (through negligence or stipulated misconduct) there are reconfigured as ‘risk objects’. Through the duty of care, humanitarian workers are constantly oscillating from ‘risk’ to ‘safety’ and back again.



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Nobert, M. & C. Williamson. 2017. Duty of Care: Protection of Humanitarian Aid Workers from Sexual Violence. Report the Abuse.

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