Nancy Bruni

Defense Date


Graduation Date

Fall 2005


Immediate Access

Submission Type


Degree Name



Graduate Center for Social and Public Policy


McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts

Committee Chair

Joseph D. Yenerall

Committee Member

Daniel Lieberfeld

Committee Member

Sharon Erickson Nepstad


Political Neutrality and Humanitarian Aid, Practical Implications of Ideological Neutrality


This study investigates how the different ideological interpretations of the principle of neutrality affect the practices of humanitarian aid organizations in conflict situations. Specifically, I study the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Médicins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders/MSF). Additionally, I seek specific examples from the current conflict in Darfur, Sudan to illustrate my findings.

The purpose of this study is to determine how the organizations deal with delivering aid in a highly politicized environment while maintaining neutrality. It seeks to articulate the current dilemmas facing aid organizations that work to save the lives of those who suffer. Understanding the manner in which neutrality impacts practice is an essential step in the process of determining the most effective and humanitarian means of delivering aid.

I interview staff members at the ICRC and MSF and collect operational reports from each organization. I conduct a qualitative analysis of the interviews and documents by coding the information according to six categories: 1) Neutrality, 2) Coordination and Collaboration, 3) Political Factors, 4) Unintended Consequences of Aid, 5) Genocide, and 6) Human Rights. After the information is separated in these themes, I search for emergent themes in the data and articulate the policy dilemmas that arise.

I find that organizations identify neutrality as simply not taking sides in a conflict. The manner in which neutrality impacts practices depends on the goals and mission of the organization. This study demonstrates that humanitarian aid organizations consistently struggle with the question of how neutrality should impact practice. ICRC adheres more strictly to the principle of neutrality because of its international mandate to promote international humanitarian law and its dependency on access to victims to fulfill this mandate. There are two main schools of thought regarding neutrality within MSF. There are those who assert that MSF should maintain neutrality to the same extent as ICRC; and there are those who argue that MSF should take the role of public advocate for victims by denouncing abusive practices.

I conclude that neutrality impacts practice, depending in part on the organization's goals, by enhancing the level of organizational responsibility for aid's impact, minimizing its coordination with other aid agencies, states or international organizations, and either eliminating the freedom to denounce abusive practices or causing dilemmas within organizations over whether or not to publicly denounce the parties to a conflict. Neutrality is more often a pragmatic means to an end rather than a theoretical ideal. Additionally, the neutrality of an organization depends not only on its intention but also on how it is perceived by the parties to the conflict.