Humanitarian organisations have an image problem. The Core Humanitarian Standard places our focus on people’s dignity.

11 August 2023
Rosa Argent

by Rosa Argent

Director of Communications and Membership, CHS Alliance

Aid organisations have long been using images of people in crisis when they are at their most vulnerable. These images are intended to bring to life the trauma and life-threatening conditions they are experiencing and move people to action. But there is a fine line between documentation and exploitation.

Shocking examples of getting this balance wrong are sadly not uncommon. Recently, Médecins Sans Frontières issued an apology following condemnation for the use of an image showing a 16-year-old rape victim / survivor in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Read the story here.) It also emerged that photo libraries had sold a number of MSF’s photographs, many of which depicted identifiable and vulnerable people taken at its facilities, including “including rape survivors, and sexually abused, naked, and dying children.”

How can we stop the use of images that strip children and adults of their rights and dignity? How can we help organisations choose images that support their mission to alleviate human suffering rather than compound misery or dehumanise? Part of the solution lies with humanitarians being clearer about the ethical standards we demand as a sector – and the process to update the Core Humanitarian Standard is addressing this challenge.

Photo credit: Pexels

A principled approach

Used by hundreds of humanitarian and development organisations, the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS) sets out Nine Commitments organisations make to people and communities in situations of crisis and vulnerability to deliver quality, effective and accountable support and assistance.

The Standard is based on the four humanitarian principles and incorporates the Do No Harm principle. It addresses the power imbalances that underpin the aid system and proposes actions to shift this power and treat people experiencing crisis as equals.

Strengthening standards

While communication is already referenced in the current CHS, it is being strengthened—based on global consultation process involving aid practitioners and community members—so that organisations can better protect the rights and dignity of those they serve.

Here’s how the draft of the proposed changes make this clear:

  • Commitment One requires that “communication representing people and communities has their informed consent, and is accurate, respectful, ethical and preserves their dignity and agency”.

The intention is to place greater emphasis on people knowing their rights and actively participating in actions and decisions that affect them by making this the first of the nine commitments.

  • Commitment Four: Requires that people receive support that does not negatively affect them and their environment, including to “plan and implement programmes in ways that protect and safeguard people’s safety, security, rights and dignity, and that prevent sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment”.

It will further ensure processes are in place to safeguard any personal information collected from people and communities and other information that may place them or the organisation at risk.

  • Commitment Nine requires organisations to “ensure fundraising, resource mobilisation and fund allocations are ethical and legal and do not compromise the organisation’s mission and values”.

The consultation phase on the draft CHS will close in September and the updated standard will be finalised by the end of 2023.

As more and more organisations follow this principled and people-centred approach, we hope to see images of rape victims / survivors or starving children disappear from aid campaigns. As the CHS sets out, we need to view people affected by crisis not as passive subjects but as contributors and collaborators.  By applying the standard, positive change will become visible.

To get involved in the CHS revision process:


Some recommended resources with practical tips: