Monday, November 15, 2010

Development Ethics - problems and practice

Marion Clarke
We all know that, underlying much of the work that development researchers and practitioners do, there is some kind of moral motivation, some desire to ‘do good’, to aid progress, restore justice, relieve suffering. Behind the language of development, the basic concepts themselves used – ‘development’, implying gradual improvement, of progress towards maturity, and ‘aid’ that is given, altruistically or not, to help or assist that development – there are moral and political philosophies, interested in what is ‘good’ and ‘right’ with an understanding of relations of power that enable or constrain our capacities to ‘do good’.

As a student of Foucault, I would argue that there are three dimensions to our problems and practices - games of truth (or discourse), strategies of power, and subjective ethical relations – that are interconnected. Imagine if, instead of ‘aid’, for example, we used the term ‘redistribution’ and talked about the redistribution of wealth and entitlements. This terminology would have a very different set of ethical and political positions alongside it.

People here are aware that ‘development’ has not solved the problems of persistent inequalities, chronic poverty and environmental damage. They understand that the freedoms and material wealth some of us enjoy in the West (and increasingly in the developing world, evidenced by increasing numbers of mega rich, luxury goods consumers in China, India, Brazil) - and our ‘free’ markets (stacked in our favour) - exist at the expense of the world’s poor and our natural environment. Some also suspect that our ‘aid’ - assisting the developing world to progress towards our standards of development - is ameliorative rather than transformative, probably culturally biased, possibly unsustainable, and often made for reasons of self-interest.

We intervene in crisis situations, where the disenfranchised are amassed – those at the sharp end of unequal relations of power – where there is violence and lawlessness, starvation and hunger, disadvantage and vulnerability. The development industry is funded to step in to strengthen these fragile places where there is great human suffering and also potential danger to our way of life and the environment and markets that support it. Sometimes we feel guilty about that. That, through our colonial past, and in our post-colonial present, unequal relations of power are maintained through a whole range of practices, many of which we collude with and are complicit in. But as we are mainly pragmatist optimists, interested in getting things done and, crucially, getting it funded by the economic powers, we don’t want to get bogged down confronting the real thorny questions.

Arguments for aid investment appeal to both our humanism and rational self-interest. Surely by helping others we help ourselves? Do we even need any kind of moral argument, when we are so reasonable? Through research, much of it descriptive of problems and practical solutions, we can make a difference, however modest. We can help people to understand more about what life is like for human beings in circumstances quite different from our own.

Care for remote others is also part of the imagination, and can be fostered through contact (through observation, interview, documentation). This gives us more of a sense of our interdependence and our responsibility on a global level. Through the documentation, description and analysis, of how ‘the other half’ of the world lives, and the coping strategies that are employed – including the policies, programmes, and grassroots ‘schemes’ and ‘initiatives’ – for their ‘development’, we can improve those strategies, help to spread them and strengthen them, garner support and investment. We can all agree on the social-democratic virtues of cooperation, openness and dialogue, equality of opportunity and principles of participation, rights and responsibilities.

When it comes to evaluating the causes of the root problems involving obscene inequalities and levels of human suffering, and the moral and political positioning this entails, we are more cautious. But it may be that the critical engagement, the self-reflexivity, that was part of the purpose of this conference, is essential to the formation of effective strategies that go beyond presenting the evidence, that influence and help shape a different future. Strategies that involve pragmatic prioritisation: where can we most make a difference? What are our capacities as researchers and how can we best direct them? How do we then fund our activities? Who are our allies and supporters, with money and without, and where are the threats and constraints in the system? Where could we be co-opted, manipulated, silenced, ignored? Strategies that must also involve strong ethical-political positions.

At the Development Studies Association conference on ethics and values I did hear, perhaps rather hopefully, a radical politics trying to assert itself. I heard resistance to the growth paradigm; market-led growth, neo-imperialism, neo-liberalism, individualism, capitalism, consumerism, materialism and greed. There was a complex and fragmented mix of alternative values discussed – as well as the social-democratic principles mentioned there was flirtation with notions of pluralism, cultural relativism, amoralism, social movements, emancipatory politics, socio-cultural evolution. Many different arguments, many different disciplines. Not a great deal of coherence. I also heard a great sense of urgency - the ‘war on terror’, the ‘financial crisis’ and ecological disaster, and the threats to our way of life - are never far from people’s minds. Do we need to develop something stronger in response?

Marion Clarke studied Foucault’s ethics for a Dphil in Social and Political Thought at the University of Sussex and works as a research administrator at the Institute of Development Studies. 


  1. Very thought provoking post Marion, thank you. Re. discussions on aid investment - you might be interested in reading the comments on this Guardian Development Blog too, they seem to link in with this idea of self interest.

  2. A useful article, thank you, raising many of the questions that people in this field often seem frightened of discussing. One of my contributions to this area is on the ethics of disaster research:

    Kelman, I. 2005. "Operational Ethics for Disaster Research". International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 141-158.

    Additionally, I have learned immensely from practitioners who have the courage to research and write about aid ethics, asking similar questions as this blog from an operational perspective. Examples are Fiona Terry (Condemned to repeat?: The paradox of humanitarian action), Linda Dolman (The Crisis Caravan: What's Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?), and David Rieff (A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis).

    Despite all this writing and open critique, from multiple perspectives, what is changing?


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