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Aid agencies should be clearer about their ethical dilemmas

May 12, 2018

Are international aid organisations paying enough attention to the ethical complexities of what they do and how they do it?

Last year, as one of my final projects before I left International Alert after thirteen years, I led a review of the organisation’s ethical approach to its international peacebuilding work, and the development of a new ethical guidance to replace the one that had last been updated in the 1990s.

Along with colleagues from various parts of the world with whom I did this, I found it a fascinating experience which reminded me of and helped clarify some of the ethical tensions inherent in international aid, while also reassuring me that my colleagues at Alert were by and large acutely aware of these, and doing their best to navigate them carefully and responsibly -if not necessarily getting enough support and guidance from senior staff such as myself.

An ethical minefield

It is, after all, an ethical minefield to bring resources from far away and offer to help vulnerable people and societies build long-term resilience to the risks of conflict and the blandishments of conflict entrepreneurs. Building such resilience often entails people and communities taking new risks – part of the price of change – but how do you make sure that everyone concerned has provided their prior, informed consent, especially given the short timeframes and unrealistic expectations inherent in most donor funded projects? Is it even possible to do so, in places where governance systems – where one would normally go to discuss and obtain such consent, and develop agreed goals and plans – are often inadequate to the task? It seems irresponsible to suggest peacebuilding ideas which aren’t fully proven elsewhere, but the truth is, very few fully proven peacebuilding techniques exist, and anyway success in one place is no guarantee the same approach will work anywhere else…

We discussed these and many other ethical dilemmas of peacebuilding, and used this process to elaborate a short ethical guidance document for Alert. At its heart, this contains the organisation’s purpose, core values, and a set of ethical principles. But what I felt most useful about the guidance was its explicit recognition of the ethical difficulties and dilemmas peacebuilders face, and the importance of debate and discussion whenever decision makers were unsure of how (or whether) to proceed in a particular case.

Another project in which I was involved last year was a joint research initiative by Alert and Oxfam on civil society in conflict-affected countries. This raised some very troubling ethical questions about how local civil society organisations are typically treated – knowingly or unknowingly – by some of their international partners. This too was a reminder of the need for more  attention to be paid to ethics in international aid outfits

What do aid agencies say about their ethics?

After I left Alert, I was asked to contribute a short essay on the question of values in overseas aid, for a document due to be published later this year. In this, I touched on the question of ethics, and spent a little time looking online for other examples of aid organisations’ explorations of the ethics of their development, humanitarian or peacebuilding work.

I was surprised not to find very much, apart from internal codes of behaviour for employees, and the like. As it happened, this issue was not central to the piece I was writing, so I left it at that. But I always intended to come back and take another look, and did so today. I picked a small number of well-known and influential aid agencies: DFID, Oxfam, Save the Children, CARE, SIDA, USAID and the OECD-DAC. My methodology was simple: I looked for easy-to-find ethics statements or ethical guidance on their websites (for example under the “What we Do” or “How we Work” tabs), and also entered “Ethics” and “ethical” into their website search functions.

Obviously this methodology – if one can even dignify what I did with that word – would not stand up I court if I were using it to judge any of the organisations involved. But that’s not my purpose here. All I want to do is suggest that more formal attention seems to be needed to the ethics of aid.

From my rather superficial search I came up with no single document published by any of these major players in the sector, which acknowledged the ethical complexities of aid, and suggested how to address these. What I found instead was as follows:

  • A plethora of policies and statements about agencies’ procurement policies, and the lengths they go to, to avoid any of their funds being misspent or stolen.
  • Codes of behavioural conduct – USAID’s is one example – which cover issues like how to behave in respect of receiving gifts from outside sources; financial conflicts of interest; the misuse of position for private gain; outside activities; seeking other employment; post‐employment restrictions, etc. Most agencies had policies about whistleblowing, modern slavery and the like, and policies about sexual ethics – perhaps some of these were a response to the recent scandals in a number of international NGOs.
  • Many, many references to the need for others to improve their ethics:  developing country politicians and civil services, international trade, mining companies, etc.
  • Some useful articles explaining why giving foreign aid is morally the right thing for rich countries to do. A good example is Jeffery Sachs’ 2017 piece in the Boston Globe arguing against Trump’s proposed aid budget cuts sets out the moral case as well as a case based on justice, quoting St Ambrose that ‘You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich,’ and the even more rhetorical John F Kennedy: ‘If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich’.
  • Specific policy guidance in particular technical areas of aid, such as  principles for research and evaluation. 
  • Some organisations did have easy-to-find overarching statements: Oxfam, USAID, CARE and Save the Children, for example. These tended to set out high level principles and/or lists of values, but there was no indication that they acknowledged the ethical complexity of the enterprise in which each has been involved for several decades, such as thorny questions about the relative power of those with or without resources. CARE was the only one to use the word “ethics” in the title of the document. But they all, including CARE, came across as rather superficial, mainly containing lists of rather similar and over-used abstract words: responsibility, transparency, accountability, integrity, respect, passion, excellence, inclusion, a commitment to learning… Indeed, some of these seemed quite glib. If an organisation is “accountable … in particular to people living in poverty”, what does that mean? To hold someone accountable is to have power over them, exercised either through a carrot or a stick. What is the carrot or stick which people living in poverty can deploy towards an NGO which makes such a claim?

It’s time to be more explicit and honest about the ethical challenges

There is nothing necessarily wrong with the statements these organisations display on their websites, and it may be that beneath these lists and rather hollow phrases there is a deep lode of organisational reflection and documentation which provides the dimensions I found lacking in the documents I was able quickly to find. Certainly my own experience is that many individuals who work for these organisations do understand and worry about the ethical challenges. But I find it somehow troubling that the international aid sector – a sector which is fraught with ethical complexity and dilemmas – seems not to take this as seriously – or not explicitly, at least – as it should. The things we say most loudly, meaningfully and explicitly are, after all, surely the things we expect our staff and other stakeholders to pay most attention to, and know us for.

One contributing factor might be the fear that acknowledging our ethical problems might put off potential supporters. After all, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the public message these aid organisations have all conspired to communicate over several decades is that they can solve poverty overseas, and that the task is simple, if huge.

But it’s time to change that. In my experience ethical guidance is most useful when it is explicit about the ethical risks, and when it recognises uncertainty and grey areas as well as red lines; when it encourages debate. After all, medical students don’t simply learn the Hippocratic Oath, they are taught why it matters in situations of unequal information and power, and how it has been applied.

International aid organisations – from donors through to international NGOs and the consulting firms who deliver donors’ projects – all need make sure that every staff member carries out her work reflectively, with an appreciation of its ethical dimensions, and in the knowledge that she is expected to put any project on hold until any ethical question has been answered satisfactorily, even if this goes against the perceived short term interests of her employer. That seems at least as important as making sure she understands the procurement and whistleblowing policies, or knows which particular list of abstract nouns her organisation has decided to put on its website. The more she and her colleagues work reflectively, with access to ethical guidance, the more the aid sector will evolve into a better enabling environment for effective and sustainable development.

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