Reflections on Ethics & Development Retreat
On September 7 and 8, the Jesuit Community joined forces with the new Master's in Global Human Development to host an off-site retreat on Ethics and Development. During the course of the retreat, students and faculty members tackled some of the larger philosophical considerations of the obligation of the rich to the poor and the role of the change maker in society. They also focused on some very specific issues that challenge the work of the development practitioner including corruption, elite capture of governance and resources, gender biases, prejudice, lack of transparency, and a range of unintended consequences. Through panel sessions, guided reflection, and small group discussions students were able to engage in an open dialogue and share their professional experience in international development. Below are some reflections on the issue of ethics and the retreat, itself.
The Ethics of Development
- Reflection by SFS Dean Carol Lancaster
There are few professions more embedded in ethical considerations than the profession of international development.
For most development specialists, ethical considerations underlie their commitment and passion for work in this difficult field because the core development focus is bettering the lives of the poor. And those committed to this work are typically from the better off segments of rich societies themselves, aware of their good fortune and wanting to give back to those not so fortunate. (Of course, supporting development is not only an end but also a means to other ends, such as creating political stability in poor countries, enlarging export markets of rich countries, producing political allies and seeking sure access to raw materials...these are less evidently ethically driven goals.)
Wanting to help those less fortunate is, however, the beginning and not the end of the ethical elements in development work. One cluster of ethical issues attaches to broad questions of what the rich owe the poor -- if anything. Rights based arguments urge that all humans have the right to the basics of life -- food, water, shelter; some would argue access to health care. In short, the fact that one is alive is justification for access to those things necessary for continuing a reasonable standard of living and, by implication, those who have far more than such a standard should help ensure the needy attain that standard.
A second approach for justifying help from the rich to the poor is the argument from first principles by 'utilitarians': happiness is a basic good and goal of life so we should all strive for the greatest happiness for the greatest number. If my wealth makes me happy and your lack of wealth leaves you unhappy, a transfer of some of my wealth might make me a little less happy but might boost your happiness by quite a lot (e.g., now you can have three meals a day and I can cut out a minor desert). The utilitarians of today argue that a redistribution of world resources from the rich to the poor will make a better world (though they disagree on how much resources should be redistributed).
Yet another approach to answer the question of what the rich should do to help the poor comes from Kant and John Rawls: it is the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. If we impose Rawl's 'veil of ignorance' in which you must choose how society's resources should be distributed without knowing whether you would be among the rich or poor, you might well want to see an equitable distribution of resources -- just in case you were to become one of the poor. This little test creates a first principle of behavior that in effect argues for the golden rule.
If for whatever reasons, we decide that the rich have an obligation to help the poor, the question arises as to who or what should execute this obligation. Should it be individuals or the state or both? This is an unsettled argument philosophically but practically it is settled. Rich states help poor states (and -- at least in intent -- the people living in them) with foreign aid. But if you are a Libertarian and believe that taxes are a form of robbery of your property and so, states should provide only minimal services, then you must believe that individuals must be the responsible ones for helping the needy. If you believe that states are often incompetent or unreliable moral actors (e.g., that elites steal public resources for their own private uses), then the state is not a good option either to give or receive aid. If you think only a major organization like a state can provide the kind of help needed abroad, then you will support the state as a vehicle for the rich to help the poor. Interestingly, all these arguments were made eloquently in the US Senate in 1847 when the issue of whether the US government should provide aid to the starving Irish during the Potato Famine. It was decided that the US would not provide public aid (but would transport private aid in public vessels -- i.e., in US Navy ships) to Ireland.
There are also a number of ethical issues involving how the rich help the poor. These issues are little treated in the literature of philosophical ethics or public policy.
Where a development intervention is harmful (because it is unavoidable or a result of poor planning and execution), what is the responsibility of the intervening party (or even the beneficiaries of the intervention) to recompense the victim for harm caused? Is that responsibility reduced if those harmed have agreed to the intervention (even if they did not anticipate harm)? There is mostly silence on this issue in the policy and academic community.
Development interventions are often risky in that those intervening frequently do not know enough either about the technology they are delivering or the society or community in which they are delivering it. How much risk is too much to sustain ethically? Where risks or (worse) uncertainties carry potentially catastrophic and irreversible consequences, should those intervening embrace the 'precautionary principle' of demonstrating that an intervention will not produce such consequences? There is very little discussion of risk and uncertainty in development interventions.
At the level of the individual development practitioner, there are many ethical issues: 'are the values which motivate me in my work inconsistent with the values of those I am trying to help; and if so, how can I know I am doing the right thing for them'? Is it right to try to bring about change in the circumstances of individuals when the major institutions and values of their societies do not accept such changes -- e.g., working to eliminate child marriage in societies where women and girls have few independent rights or options? Should I abide by the law and bureaucratic regulations and get little done or skirt the law and regulations to get important things of potentially lasting good done? Should I begin a project but depart before it is completed or sustainable and potentially leave beneficiaries in the lurch if it then fails?
Development issues and development work is ethically charged. There are no easy answers and much to struggle with.
Searching for Answers: The GHD Ethics Retreat
- Reflection by Anne Flaker, GHD Student
Preparing the beds each week at the women’s shelter. Workers bathing in the slime of a pond. An overturned truck and lost livelihood. Our paths to this place are as diverse as the paths of development themselves; yet we all find ourselves in this conference room, preparing to face one of the most vital questions of our young careers: the ethics of development.
As the weekend unfolds, the inaugural cohort for the Global Human Development program begins chipping at the iceberg of challenges that we confront in the 21st Century. Where is the line between compromise and corruption? How do you account for unintended consequences of growth? And what is the cost of saving a life? Panel discussions and breakout sessions provide a forum for brainstorming and problem solving. Conversations spill into the halls and creep into lunchtime dialogues as complications arise and opinions collide. Perhaps we are on the verge of discovery- or maybe we are just muddying the waters. Either way, this class of 21 is digging into an ocean of ambiguity. We are searching for answers.
The five-session conference spans two days, but it is just the beginning. These are the questions we will hold in our cores for the remainder of our education and our lives as development practitioners. We each had our own motives for starting this journey, but as the GHD class of 2014 returns to our world of articles, problem sets, and comparative analyses, we will go with our minds open to the obstacles and possibilities that lie ahead.
Why We Work in International Development
- Reflection by Peter Cook, GHD Student
The GHD ethics retreat this past weekend was a great opportunity for our cohort to bond and to learn more about each other. Of course in orientation and the first week of class we learned each other’s names, experiences, and professional and academic interests. But this retreat gave us the opportunity to learn something more profound about one another—ultimately, each one us is motivated in one way or another to pursue a career in international development by fundamental ethical beliefs and considerations. The degree to which this is salient may vary between individuals, but one thing I took from this retreat is that it is impossible to divorce the professional practice of international development from the ethical foundations that motivate our decisions.
I learned that each one of us—including our professors—was motivated to enter this career for profoundly different reasons. Some are motivated by faith, others by our hearts, and some by experiences, family members, backgrounds and upbringings, still others by some rational evaluation of moral duties to other human beings. The common trend among us all is the belief that we live in a unique place and time to sustainably use resources, technology, knowledge and political and social will to vastly improve the lives of many of the worlds’ inhabitants. Not only is this possible, but perhaps it is ethically imperative that we make an attempt to do so.