27 October 2010

Development: what have values, morality and ethics got to do with it?

In answer to the title of the blog: Obviously a lot, otherwise the Development Studies Association Conference, November 5 at Church House, Westminster, would be a very short meeting.

We hear a lot about the morality of giving aid, the ethics of businesses and the values of development organisations...all areas where these three concepts are regularly mentioned. Values (the basis for defining right and wrong), morals (the societally sanctioned motivations for acting in a certain way) and ethics (more formally codified morality, often in a professional setting) are obviously important (and please don't give me grief on the definitions). But what about the buried and implied uses of these terms? When can they help difficult choices be made? When can they block good change? Can policy do anything to shape them? Should it?

I am involved in 3 sessions at the Conference:

1. On Drivers of the views that the UK public have about Aid. An example of one very live issue here: what is the moral case for spending UK taxpayer money on an Indian baby instead of a English one? Spencer Henson from IDS will present on his work with the UK Public Opinion Monitor.

2. On Reimagining Development. I'm giving a paper on 5 assumptions which I argue need to come under closer scrutiny as a result of the crises of the past 2 years. One of them is the assumption that giving aid to the poorest countries as opposed to the poorest people is the "right" thing to do. IDS colleagues Naomi Hossain and Allister McGregor will also present.

3. On the Oxford Multiple Indicators of Poverty work: again, lots of choices here--how many dimensions of poverty are chosen? Which poverty threshold is chosen? What value do we place on the distance below that threshold? Sabina Alkire will lead this session.

There are dozens of other sessions, all discussing choices (life, practice, policy) that are driven implicitly or explicitly by values, morals and ethics.

Come and join us at Church House (an apt name!).


  1. On the point of poorest coutries vs poorest people, another question that needs attention is poorest population groups vs poorest individuals. Too often, lazy assumptions are made in aid practice. For example, regarding "slum dwellers" as a homogenous group in need of aid, when a closer look shows that among those slum dwellers some will not be in need of development assistance while others, those most excluded in the slum community, without a targeted approach will remain unreached.

  2. If you haven't seen it, this new paper on operating from common values by World Wildlife Fund, Oxfam and others may provide some key insights for your discussions. ‎"Our dominant model of human decision-making needs updating."


  3. Thanks Matt,lots of lazy assumptions about groups, I agree--so much easier than messy heterogeneity..

    Jennifer, I had not seen this from wwf, but something similar on "human flourishing" from tearfund and (I think) christian aid. Thanks