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The American Red Cross Agency’s Ethical Challenges


Disasters occur in different forms, from natural to man-made ones, and can they often happen without warning. When they occur, they have a direct and indirect impact on individuals affected, depending on their magnitude and intensity. As often observed, disasters disrupt daily life, lead to loss of life, and sometimes destroy property, leading to severe economic impacts to both the government and individual victims. In the U.S., several organizations intervene toward providing assistance to individuals and families affected by disasters. The ARC trains disaster responders to help in relief efforts. For its humanitarian efforts, the organization relies on volunteers whose main role is to offer help to disaster victims and assist people to prepare for, respond to, and prevent emergencies. The ARC has a presence in all 50 states. Generally, it is possible to argue that the Red Cross plays an integral role in restoring situations when disasters strike, but the nature and complexity of disasters continue challenging its role and scope.

The ARC is a non-profit organization that is devoted to assisting people in need in America and throughout the world. Since its establishment, the ARC has embodied the decency of the human spirit by demonstrating goodwill and service across the country. Its intent or objective is to alleviate or avert suffering. The organization’s vision is to be a trusted symbol and to consistently touch the lives of Americans. When a disaster occurs in the U.S., its citizens expect the Red Cross to respond with medical care, food, shelter, and clothing. The organization responds to numerous natural disasters within the U.S annually. The ARC responds to approximately 70,000 disasters annually in the country. These disasters vary from natural calamities like tornados that affect communities, home fires that impact families to earthquakes that affect millions. It touches almost every American household at some point during their life, whether through volunteerism, blood donations, health education, or direct service. Substantial contributions of funds, time, and blood keep the ARC sustainable. It is the main blood collection organization in the U.S, supplying about 40 percent of blood products. Its employees, volunteers, and supporters give five main areas of care in ARC’s main humanitarian role. These responsibilities include blood collection, assisting individuals affected by disasters, processing and disseminating information concerning health and safety. It also deals with the training, providing international aid and relief, as well as offering physical and emotional support to the military on a humanitarian aid mission.

A mission statement significantly determines the success of any organization. Without a clear mission, an organization would cease to exist because it is the basis for planning. The ARC’s mission statement is clearly stated; it clearly articulates their objectives and how they achieve them. The organization’s mission is to alleviate and avert suffering caused by disasters by mobilizing the kindness of donors and putting to use the power of volunteers. According to Babbie (2015), the Red Cross in America has an abundance of volunteers who are psychologically and emotionally invested in the organization’s mission. They believe that the organization has immense social value as it provides much-needed aid to Americans during times of hardship.

Ethical Issues Related to the ARC’s Operations

As usual, the area of humanitarian crisis management has attracted several ethical and moral dilemmas that have left people questioning the integrity and professional conduct of the workers linked to the global Red Cross society. Since the organization works on the framework that involves dire issues of promoting good health, serving affected populations, and limiting intentional harm or death during catastrophes, sometimes its scope and functions become challenged by the increasing dynamism of disasters. Disasters fluctuate in magnitude, impact, and complexity. As such, Red Cross workers must be extremely keen to ensure that they offer necessary humanitarian aid while observing such issues of intense moral fragilities. This section of the paper examines some of the ethical concerns that affect disaster recovery and response efforts, and that might not be acknowledged in the devastating, complex circumstances resulting from disasters. Specifically, the report will deal with analyzing the ethical and social justice issues related to post-disaster relief efforts. Existing information in academia will be used to review the ARC’s operations in relation to the ethical issues surrounding emergency management, the nature of social work, and service management from the perspective of disasters.

There are many ethical considerations involved in disaster services. Disasters normally strike societies with little or no warning. As a direct result of disasters, communities, families, and individuals suffer debilitation and trauma and in virtually all aspects of their everyday lives. Several agencies and groups, which function under diverse auspices, values, and assumptions, participate in the delivery of various forms of services following disastrous events. In spite of the good intentions, differences from one organization to another in terms of modes of requirements, application, eligibility standards (for instance, which households or individuals are most eligible for aid after a disaster), scheduling, and communication increase the probability of poor coordination, conflict, and inconsistency during disaster response. For instance, social service and emergency management agencies might not comprehensively address the unique needs of specific groups of society, such as, homeless individuals, immigrants, and children. For people and communities affected by a disaster, such organizational limitations can increase anger and frustration. Such instances are likely to cause life-threatening problems. In a situation, which requires an urgent and desperate need for help, the above circumstances could hinder the community or individuals from recovering from a crisis.

From a conceptual framework view, philosophical theories, ethical principles, and values that direct social work within the environment of disaster management focus mainly on response and recovery after a disaster. Secondly, this framework is used to evaluate barriers, gaps, and problems (for example, circumstantial, interpersonal, or administrative) linked to ethics. The importance is placed on how the ARC might fail to adequately handle the post-disaster needs of vulnerable individuals and communities (including immigrants and the elderly). Thirdly, a review is carried out of the significant role that social workers of the ARC should play in the development and execution of ethically and socially accepted practices applied in social service delivery linked to disasters. The report stresses the ethical tactics and strategies that can enhance the opportunity, speed, and capacity with which communities, families, and individuals can overcome the damage associated with tragedies.

Ethical Framework: Ethical Uncertainty and Disasters

The multifaceted dynamics of disaster management and devastating events are normal causes of dilemmas and moral uncertainties. Studies have established proof of discontent, for both responders and survivors, with the consistency, extent, and type of disaster relief. Inadequate or lack of training and preparation of emergency responders social service providers like the ARC can significantly affect the quality of services to disaster survivors. Representatives of the disaster relief organizations such as the ARC have sometimes felt incapable of responding satisfactorily to the needs of survivors and, in some circumstances, considered it necessary to act contrary to the interests of survivors due to specific policies and regulations and policies adopted by the agency they work for. Additionally, some regulations and policies by national and state governmental entities tasked with disaster recovery efforts have been deemed as too rigid, poorly defined, vague, and requiring a high level of skill (i.e., financial management competency), making it hard for some social workers to comply.

Regulations and policies linked to disaster relief organizations and government can easily create ethical dilemmas for social workers, especially when responding to the fast changing circumstances linked to disasters. Ethical issues arising from such regulations and policies might lead to the delay or denial of access to services during a humanitarian aid crisis. Humanitarian aid deems appropriate when the delivery of service best translates to positive coping for communities and individuals affected by disasters. Sometimes the standards or regulations enacted by relief or disaster response institutions fail to apply, regardless of the best intentions and efforts of individuals and organizations. Failures in the application of such guidelines lead to insufficient response to the needs of survivors. Hence, interventions in such situations might not operate consistently with the existing moral standards. Disaster survivors usually experience unusual circumstances, especially when dealing with insufficient resources. A person’s, family’s or community’s capacity to cope might be briefly hampered by the complexity and unexpected change associated with disasters. Consequently, outside help is desperately required, including information, evacuation, transportation, food, and shelter.

Disaster survivors often require grants, loans, and other types of aid for recovery efforts (such as compensation for rebuild housing). Furthermore, after disaster communities often need resources to restore infrastructures like highways, roads, and bridges. To make this possible, external help is delivered to affected communities by different non-for-profit, profit, and governmental agencies, each of which functions under its own ethical traditions, position, and standards. These differences might increase the opportunity for lack of coordination, contradiction, and conflict in service delivery. For example, some approaches relating with survivors can be unsafe or cause anger, disappointment, desperation, and frustration among disaster survivors. Survivors might face a confusing range of organizations and agencies that use dissimilar types of time frameworks, eligibility criteria, communication, and application requirements. The expectations of survivors, especially immediately after a disaster, might exceed the capability of any organizational structure to react systematically. These challenges and other circumstantial, interpersonal, and administrative can cause ethical and moral problems and undermine service delivery to disaster survivors.

Ethical Challenges and Conflicts of Responsibility Facing ARC


The term mandate in humanitarian discourse is used to proscribe and describe the different types of values, legality, and mission held by the different agencies involved in humanitarian activities. The mandating of agencies signifies three different aspects: organizational perspectives along with a range of ethical goals, a demographic or technical specialism, and a legal dimension. For instance, agencies talk of having a humanitarian mandate, a health mandate, or a children’s mandate. The lawful mandates of global agencies operating in humanitarian work fall under two main categories: self-mandated or state-mandated. The International Committee of the Red Cross (which encompasses the ARC) has an international mandate that is legally acknowledged by states. Agencies like the ARC can be defined as state-mandated: Self-mandated agencies are characteristically regulated, recognized, and registered by countries to different degrees but do not have an official global mandate.

“An agency’s technical mandate refers to its demographic target group and its dedicated field of professional” (Stoddard, 2007). An agency’s specialism might be specific; that is, focus on one are like human rights, health, or children or health. Mandate differentiates between development and humanitarian roles. Single mandate agencies are defined as those that work solely with an emergency humanitarian mission based on humanitarian principles and international humanitarian law. In contrast, multi-mandate agencies respond to an emergency humanitarian disaster and the wider longer-term crisis of social justice, poverty, and human development. In this broader work, multi-mandate agencies sometimes advocate for political change of different types. It is in this sense of development versus humanitarian multi-mandate that ethical tensions arise within agencies that are trying to balance, finesse, complement, or separate the development and humanitarian features of their multi-mandate operations.

The ARC is increasingly differentiating itself from multi mandate agencies through its proclamation of its neutral, impartial, and independent approach (NIIHA), which is limited in purpose and strictly directed by humanitarian values. It is rational that several agencies that started as humanitarian agencies ought to ethically develop into multi-mandate agencies as global circumstances change over time. For example, Oxfam, Save the Children, and several others started as humanitarian agencies born from a specific emergency response. An extremely reasonable extension of ethical desire organically drew these agencies into a more political and broader development ethic. Basically, it makes ethical sense to attempt to avert suffering rather than simply fixing it. The ARC is not exempt from this ethical tension because the actions of other players in disaster relief (such as government policies) directly affect its operations. One of the main ethical challenges facing the ARC Cross is striking the right balance between combining humanitarian ethics with development ethics as it endeavors to work with other entities in the same operational space.

Observing Impartiality

Individuals working for the ARC constantly face the challenge of being impartial as they carry out their duties. Impartiality makes no differentiation concerning religious beliefs, political opinions, class, race, or nationality. Some people cannot relieve the suffering of people without favoritism. Some cannot prioritize the most critical cases of distress. Impartiality is a key aspect of disaster relief: It emphasizes that assistance must be proportionate to the level of suffering. It also proposes non-discrimination, whereby all those in need should be assisted, and that everyone should be treated in the same way without discrimination.

Maintaining Neutrality

To enjoy the trusts and confidence of all Americans, humanitarian organizations must not become partisan. This means that that they should not take sides in conflicts or participate at any time in disagreements of an ideological, racial, religious, or political nature. To continue enjoying the confidence of all, the ARC should not get involved in hostilities or participate in any way in religious, political, racial, or ideological controversies. Neutrality suggests avoiding political, religious, or any other disagreements in critical in humanitarian aid. When ARC takes sides, it would lose the trust of one section of the population and therefore be incapable of effectively continuing its activities.

The Link between Ethical Issues and Philosophical Theories

The suitability of specific public policy responses to disasters depends on the particular principles, standards, or criteria one feels society should embrace or acknowledge. Moral philosophy gives numerous main alternative ethical perspectives to guide organizers in disaster mitigation. Recently, the scope of social work has increased to capture the need for specialized activity concerning disaster intervention tactics. However, a proper delineation of the moral and ethical aspects of social work intervention continues to be insufficient. A general disposition of ethics in the social work profession should entail an all-inclusive approach to disaster relief and response. Allahyari (2000) claims that there should be a practical application of normative morals in social work. Normative ethics comprise of strategies geared towards the application of ethical practice and theories to moral dilemmas. Such a guide is particularly useful when social workers experience conflicts among responsibilities; they are usually persuaded to perform.

Normative theories are applicable to everyday practice. However, this application is unusual in the situation of disaster management. Meltzer (1994), while evaluating social work practice from the context of moral theory, highlighted the significance of practicing the art of caring and managing interpersonal relationships when undertaking successful interventions. During catastrophic or personal disasters, social workers have an obligation to adopt a caring attitude towards the survivors and remain receptive to their needs. Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994) describe moral citizenship as the duty of a person in a caregiving situation to determine good behavior and rights. Such a determination acts as part of the social worker’s rights in responding and providing help to the community members, including contemporaries, agencies, and society.

Hodgkinson and Shepherd (2010) state that moral citizenship has its concern on how social workers apply consciousness, feeling, action, and thinking to deliver social work. The moral responsibility of social workers towards survivors affected by a disaster should involve connecting with them. These connections can occur via advocating for organizational and societal resources to protect the victims of the disaster and safeguard their rights and privileges. Utilitarian theories of ethics consider an action to be morally appropriate in situations of conflicting duties when they produce the greatest wellbeing. They also contend that an act is morally good when grounded on the evaluation of the action’s projected good (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994). Besides, utilitarianism becomes attainable when the benefits of disaster mitigation surpass the incurred costs. Setting moral priorities sometimes becomes difficult for both the victims and social workers. This complexity is becoming severe when the disaster emerges which multiple, complicated, and urgent needs.

Researchers and scholars criticizing utilitarianism have their focus on the challenge associated with deciding between two competing options. The challenge intensifies when the benefits of a specific choice tend to be unfeasible when determining the outcomes of each choice. Social workers have an indispensable role in assisting the victims of the disaster in navigating between choices and making informed decisions about their actions under the existing conditions of disaster. The constructivist approach has also been applied in humanitarian aid provision. According to the constructivist approach, ethics should involve a process of defining mutual problems, ascertaining priority goals, and determining the areas for improvement among key actors. In social work practice, Allahyari (2000) reveals that the constructivist approach translates to an ethical practice grounded in values such as mindfulness, empowerment, and respect.

Belief systems have also emerged with a model contending that principles or tenets shape rules of conduct and tend to have an influence on the behavior and outcomes. In research, Allahyari (2000) contends that a constructivist approach is also practical in clinical practice. His assumptions emphasize the social context and social justice in clinical social work. However, these arguments revolve around aspects of individualism and rationalism. Sometimes, these aspects emerge as universal truths that disrespect culture and neglect the social contexts within which they could define the lives, the needs, and individuals’ concerns. Thompson (2011) provided a summary of the study of ethics that captured the three principal theories of duty. The theory of virtue promotes the use of qualities such as honesty, assertiveness, and respect for the nature, behaviors, opinions, and feelings of other people. Therefore, the theory of duties postulates contractual permission, prescriptions and prohibitions, and obligations. It is a theory associated with the common good and issues of social justice.

An application of the outlined theoretical viewpoints in social work is a pure indication that individuals, families, and societies plagued by disasters deserve respectful and dignified treatment in the course of a crisis. Thompson and Strickland (2002) considered the idea of practice as an act of behaving competently, responsibly, and engaging in advocacy. Additionally, initiatives, services, and programs tailored towards assisting survivors ought to be keen on promoting the rights of the individual. These actions should also support healing from psychological and physical harm. During a disaster, social workers have a collective responsibility to develop a caring attitude towards individuals. They should also engage in moral citizenship necessary in addressing the pressing needs of populations and enhancing social justice. Organizational and individual pre and post-disaster actions should seek to maximize the protection of individual rights and reduce physical and emotional harm.


Models that attempt to link disaster relief and development as well as resolve their ethical tension apply either a sequential or an integrated approach. Ideas such as rights-based programming attempt to resolve ethical tensions and social justice issues simultaneously. They propose an integrative model of practice where good emergency work always also includes developmental values such as justice, participation, and empowerment applied concurrently. This concurrent model attempts to incorporate emergency and development ethics, short-term and long-term objectives in humanitarian operations (Wuthnow, 2000). Other ideas, like the relief-development continuum, rehabilitation, and early recovery, use a sequential logic to illustrate how values are intensified and phased over a disaster’s life cycle. The sequential model suggests that not every ethic can be applied in extremis and that ethical development during and after disasters is progressive. The sequential model used a gradual model that phases different ethics in keeping with the continuing realization of human rights theory. The integrated model applies an all-inclusive model that appreciates both ethics all the time.

Humanitarian assistance attracts various dilemmatic ethical and moral issues. A little disaster can attract the attention of human rights activities, the media, independent public analysts, and even the people, especially when an action in humanitarian aid turns out amoral. Brunsma and Picou (2018) state, for instance, that people must always be aware of the ethical implications involving the social work associated with dealing with humanitarian crises. When social workers in a humanitarian crisis are dealing with people in extreme situations, they must remain obligated to give special thought to ethical issues. Disasters amplify, increase, and sometimes aggravate individual crises. Wuthnow (2000) suggests that communities, families, and individuals in crisis are especially vulnerable to exploitation. Under the stigma of discrimination, for example, survivors’ responses to severe distress under extreme circumstances may be misunderstood as mental illness.

Amongst the fundamental values to incorporate when dealing with conditions of disaster are dignity and respect, justice, advocacy, and self-determination (Wuthnow, 2000). In most cases, research has shown that the victims of disasters often comprise of individuals and families with limited experience on matters of social service organizations. These individuals generally depend on their resources during a disaster (Wuthnow, 2000). Several survivors of natural and technological disaster may find it difficult to seek help from service organizations because of the social stigma frequently linked to these agencies and for fear of losing independence, control over their lives, and respect (Wuthnow, 2000). Therefore, social workers need to evaluate how intervention methods best enable mutual, respectful relationships with families and individuals within the setting of post-disaster intervention. Hence, it is the role of social workers to design and implement intervention strategies that elicit few ethical issues when in practice.


Humanitarian aid workers no longer consider themselves solely as emergency workers but also as part of a global profession that is based on the global legal system. Such an impression makes it a lot easier to work together with and coexist within workspaces with government employees who may have a totally different value system and approach to work. Theorists have proposed that rights-based humanitarian action makes ethical and legal sense. It is the moral and professional duty of all social workers, irrespective of their area of specialty, to adhere to a code of ethics like the U.S’s National Association of Social Workers, which guides behavior in interaction with different systemic levels. Social service providers and social workers should be cognizant as well of international humanitarian relief and governmental ethical guidelines like the Code of Conduct of the International Federation of Red Cross. An analysis of how professional social work guidelines apply in the context of disaster is necessary.


Allahyari, R.A. (2000). Visions of Charity: Volunteer Workers and Moral Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Babbie, E. (2015). The Practice of Social Research, 13th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Brunsma, D., &,.S. Picou, eds. (2018). Disasters in the Twenty-First Century: Modern Destruction and Future Instruction. Social Forces 87(2):983-991.

Goode, E., and N. Ben-Yehuda. (1994). Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hodgkinson, P.E., & M.A. Shepherd. (2010). The Impact of Disaster Support Work. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 7:587-600.

Meltzer, M. (1994). Who Cares? Millions Do…: A Book About Altruism. New York: Walker and Company.

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Wuthnow, R. (2000). Learning to Care. New York: Oxford University Press.

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