Development Ethics: Hiding in Plain Sight


Of all the reasons to travel to Costa Rica, attending a philosophy conference is probably not very high on the list. And yet, for that very reason, I found myself on a plane this July, in the company of tourists and travelers whose destinations included pristine beaches, isolated ecolodges, and bohemian hideaways. My destination, perhaps not as immediately glamorous as theirs, was a lecture hall at the University of Costa Rica, where the tenth international conference of the International Development Ethics Association (IDEA) was being held. Born out of the meeting of a small but dedicated group of young philosophers who met at the same university thirty years ago, IDEA provides a forum for philosophers, social scientists, and development practitioners to discuss what they call “the ethics of global development.”

What is Development Ethics?

Development ethics have actually been a key component of the development process since its very beginning, even if it has not always been readily identified and acknowledged. Even President Truman’s 1949 inaugural address, cited by many as one of the first formulations of what international development should be, contained a clear moral argument about the development process: “…we should make available to peace-loving peoples the benefits of our store of technical knowledge in order to help them realize their aspirations for a better life.” However, in those early days, the focus of development theory was trained on what should be done rather than why and how. It wasn’t until the late 1970s, when the achievements of the “golden age” of development were beginning to fade, that development ethics began to step into the spotlight. The famines in Bangladesh and East Africa, the Latin American financial crisis, and the rash of violent conflicts that stretched across the globe from Central America to Southeast Asia, all played their part in questioning the dominant first paradigm of development, that simple government-to-government technology transfers, aided by multilateral funding mechanisms, automatically produced peace, growth, and political order.

Development ethics, then, begins with the premise that there is no single “right way” to do development. Instead, development is accomplished through a series of relationships, between donors and recipients, implementers and evaluators, scholars and practitioners, politicians and peasants, environments and organisms, cultures and scientific paradigms. Development ethics aims to expose these relationships and our assumptions about them in a way that not only provides guidance (or at the very least, food for thought) about how development projects should be undertaken and evaluated, but also how needs should be prioritized, how funds can best be spent, and how local communities should best be engaged.

Who Does Development Ethics?

At the outset, of course, this all seems fairly academic. And it is true, at least in its formal variety, development ethics is an academic pursuit. But that does not mean the lessons and methods of development ethics have little impact on the way development is actually done. The introduction of the Human Development Index by the United Nations Development Program in the 1990s, for example, demonstrates a notable attempt to answer some of the questions development ethicists have been asking about how development should be measured. Likewise, USAID’s recent Local Systems Framework displays a remarkable acuity with issues of local knowledge, embedded power structures, and context specificity. Few, if any, serious development organizations now consider single economic models to be all-informing or local contexts programmatically irrelevant.

At Chemonics, we routinely face challenges and issues that are directly relevant to the lessons of development ethics, from evaluating prospective program staff and technical approaches to making on-the-ground decisions with project beneficiaries and government officials. In our close work with local partners, for example, we often foster what development ethicist David Crocker calls an insider-outsider hybrid approach, one that is informed by both understanding of local knowledge and context and ideas and methods from the outside world.

While we may not need familiarity with the abstruse philosophical concepts as those who study development ethics from an academic point of view, we nonetheless are deeply involved in both shaping and framing the central question of development ethics — How can and should the lives of people around the world better reflect their aims and needs? — every single day.

Matthew R.G. Regan is a writer-editor in Chemonics’ strategic solutions and communications division and a PhD student at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.

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