07 November 2010

Finding Common Moral Ground

The opening plenary of the Development Studies Association (DSA) Conference on November 5 was fascinating.

We had Stephen Chan (above left) from SOAS and Chris Whitty from LSHTM and DFID as our two panellists. Each made excellent presentations with lots of time for questions from the audience.

Key points I took away from the session:

  • The notions of goodness that motivate much aid work in the West may be very different from notions of goodness in the countries that we work in
  • We must be careful of equating “our aid” with “our values”, especially in conflict zones where lazy assumptions can have fatal consequences
  • The challenge is not to prioritize one set of morals over another, or to look for universals, but to engage in a struggle between multiple moralities in the search for common ground
  • Development research has to pay particular attention to ethics because the people we work with and for are often the most vulnerable to bad choices and stand to gain the most from good choices, so we have a special responsibility to act morally and ethically
  • When does development research with no immediate impact pathway become voyeurism and unethical? If the research is done in partnership with researchers and practitioners from the country, does this mitigate this worry or reinforce it?
  • Participation in randomised controlled trials requires individual consent , but often the principle that no individual can give consent for another individual is violated when randomization is not at the level of the individual (e.g. at a cluster level). Can the presence of a democratic process compensate for this absence?
  • What is our ethical responsibility as researchers to make data and analysis available? We have surprisingly few explicit guides in this area.
  • The issue of directing aid resources came up: Do we target poor countries or poor people? Do we target countries that are trapped or people that are trapped? Each of these give very different answers in terms of aid priorities. We need a study that asks: is poverty more persistent in countries that are deemed to be trapped by conflict and fragility (e.g. where governments are unwilling or unable to reduce poverty) or countries that on the face of things seem willing (e.g. put in place the right policies) and able (e.g. have GDP/cap growth and a growing tax base). The rules for engaging are not straightforward and will rely on a substantive knowledge of national politics to make a case by case assessment.
  • Finally, is the emphasis on morality and “what works” simply a diversion from the politics of change that underpin development but which the development industry is uncomfortable dealing with? We need to find ways of understanding and engaging in political discourses.
All DSA papers are to be found here.

1 comment:

  1. I've had several readers ask me about the last point in the post..let me clarify..the unexamined moral justifications and the renewed emphasis on what works may serve as a temporary refuge for those who are uncomfortable with the political process of development, but in my view they will also catalyse sustained contributions to that political process through highlighting new tradeoffs to be confronted and new competing moral claims to be negotiated.