“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.