GHD Students Reflect on Ethics in Development in Annual Ethics Retreat

Development practitioners work to improve the condition of humanity around the globe, and face the ethical quandaries posed by engagement in complex, vibrant, and often unstable environments. Marion Jehane Abboud, GHD '17, and Kyle Goeckner-Wald, GHD '17, spent the weekend with their classmates and faculty, tackling these questions and, here, offer their thoughts.

Ethics and Development: A Great, Big Gray Area of Questions, Dilemmas, and Uncertainties

By Marion Jehane Abboud, GHD '17

This weekend, the Global Human Development ’17 cohort escaped to Georgetown’s Calcagnini Contemplative Center for an Ethics and Development Retreat. The discussions and debates that took place were nothing short of inspirational.

On the first day, faculty and classmates began by sharing their own personal stories about how and why they dedicated themselves to a development career. Life journeys and experiences varied tremendously, but also shed light on a set of shared values and perspectives: First is an acute awareness of the inequalities and injustices that shape our world, along with a tremendous will and desire to address and tackle them head-on. And second, and perhaps most important, was an unsaid but very clear consensus in the room that the human component – the people both directly and indirectly impacted by our work – are the central concern and consideration in anything we do.

Students and faculty also shared ethical dilemmas that had particularly struck them in their past professional experiences. We found ourselves with a long list of real-life ethical issues and questions to tackle. It was a powerful reminder that ethical dilemmas are inevitable in any genuinely human-centered development approach. The work, by nature, is full of uncertainty, not only in terms of the pathways to change, and the results and outcomes, but also in terms of the ethics, values, and principles that guide our day to day activities and decisions.  At times, the difference between right and wrong can appear so black and white. But in the ethics of development, we often find ourselves in a difficult gray area.

We discussed dilemmas such as these - Should I be accepting money from a certain foundation or company despite the questionable sources of its wealth? Do national security concerns justify our provision of foreign assistance to countries ruled by ruthless dictators? Should we accept government grant money despite some unreasonable conditions and expectations, or despite the fact that their interests might contradict our own? Is implementing a short term, underfunded program doing more harm than good? Or is it better to be doing something than nothing at all? When is it, or is it ever, ethical to turn a blind eye to certain acts of corruption in the local contexts in which we work? And when we witness corruption in our own organizations, when do you (or when do you not) speak up, keeping in mind that a scandal could compromise very valuable programs?

These are just some of the many questions we grappled with over the course of the retreat. And yet, with all the debate and discussions we had, we ended the retreat with more questions than when we began. This was, in fact, a more valuable takeaway than any clear answers or solutions we would have struggled to contrive.

Development efforts are often happening in a fast-paced, high-pressured environment and constrained by serious limits in resources and time. In a rush to achieve high impact, we do not always take the time to reflect on the complexity and consequences of the numerous ethical decisions we are making every day. Though we can not always be certain that we are making the right decision, taking the time to ask the right questions and think through the issues, and to then reflect on how they converge with (or diverge from) our core values, principles, and beliefs, is essential.

This ethics and development retreat was an important reminder to us all that one cannot overstate the importance of introspection, reflection, and even self-criticism in development. No matter the pressures, constraints, and obstacles we face along the way, and no matter how noble our intentions may be - as long as people are the center of our development work, we can never ask enough questions about the ethics of our actions and decisions.

A Reflection on Purpose

By Kyle Goeckner-Wald, GHD '17Kyle Goeckner Wald

I found the Global Human Development Ethics Retreat the perfect opportunity to reflect on the larger questions that frequently become lost in the daily rush of action items, homework assignments, and career concerns. I strongly believe that contemplative reflection and critical self-examination is vital in a sector such as international development. Working in developing countries, particularly as a foreigner, presents daily ethical quandaries and complex challenges stemming from privilege, differences in cultural norms, and the ever present moral urgency to remedy global poverty and alleviate suffering.

I particularly enjoyed the Calcagnini Contemplative Center as the location for the retreat. Being removed from the distractions of daily Washington, DC life allowed the group to critically examine their own beliefs and values and their relationship to the international development sector. Too often I find myself distracted by the happenings and daily stresses of the city and lose sight of my broader, personal mission in international development.

My favorite part of the retreat was our group discussion of how we all became involved in the international development sector. While I noticed that all of my cohort had very different individual narratives and academic and professional backgrounds, we all shared a common concern for humanity globally. I was also struck by how so many of my classmates had particular transformative experiences which piqued their interest in global inequality and eventually led them to working in international development. I was especially surprised by how many of my classmates had made significant sacrifices to work in international development and have an ethically impactful career.  

I highly recommend that such ethics development activities continue not only for the Global Human Development program but also the broader Georgetown University community. Not only will it help students examine their own values and career trajectories, but it will be critical in fostering a sea change in the broader public policy community towards more moral awareness.