For a long time, the term ‘development’ was supposed to conjure images of a neutral, unbiased scientific process that improved society. However many thinkers, including Goulet have helped development theorists and practitioners understand that no action is value neutral. This post will study the ethics of international development through a few situations where a conflict of values arises.
Is development unbiased and scientific? The answer to this lies in understanding the circumstances that give people the authority to change society. For example, let us take the construction of a large hydroelectric dam in a country with a shortage of electricity. This development project could be beneficial for the nation by improving its economic and social conditions. However, what if the dam destroyed a vital biodiversity hotspot and displaced local indigenous people against their will? Whatever the decision, whether in favour of generating electricity or of respecting the rights of indigenous people and the ecology, it will not be unbiased or scientific. It would be based on the values, power politics and needs of the situation at that point in time. Alternatively, what if the local people wanted the dam to be constructed and were willing to sacrifice their ecology and their lifestyle? With both the state and local parties on board with the project, do international organisations or ‘outsiders’ have the right to stop the construction of the dam and conserve the biodiversity of the area? This is also true of changes in culture. One could see the ban of headscarves as an improvement in the status of women as they are free to walk without a scarf. However, if we were to turn the issue around, we could say that they are forced to walk with their heads uncovered. It is all a matter of perspective. A more extreme case would be that of the Stolen Generation in Australia. These were aboriginal children who were separated from their families by the state and cut off from their communities, cultures, history and languages, till the late 1960s. This was supposed to be a method of developing the country and the people and is very clearly not a value neutral decision as it declared an entire community incompetent and abused their basic human rights of dignity and freedom of choice, amongst many others. This brings us to the question of legitimacy. If the development discourse and practise are not inherently unbiased or scientific, where do they get the right to change societies and impose decisions on situations and people? Between international organisations, the state and local people, the first two have the most power and say in projects and under the best of circumstances have been known to give a voice and legitimacy to the opinion of local people. However, must local people be given a voice or do they intrinsically have the right to decide the course of their own development?
Aid is also one contentious issue. At one level it could be seen as beneficial and as a method of redistributing resources so that underprivileged states have access to funds for education, health and post-war reconstruction. However, one must also recognise that continuous and infinite access to aid could create perverse incentives wherein poor countries choose to remain poor so that they continue to get funding. Gibson articulates the aid dilemma very effectively when he asks:
What’s wrong with development aid? Almost every part...has been criticized, the geopolitical agenda of donors to the distributive politics of recipient countries; from the ties that bind aid to procurement from private firms in the donors country to the constraints of on aid bureaucrats’ decision-making power; from the type of aid given to the type of accountability demanded.”
It becomes apparent that every stage of development aid can be fraught with ethical issues and power politics.
If most development projects are potentially harmful and ethically contentious, does this mean that development projects should cease to be? The aim of acknowledging and studying development ethics is to problematise a project. This means that we analyse the project, dissect it, understand its possible outcomes and consequences and then decide whether or not to apply it. This will not make the projects perfect, but it will help reduce the instances of mistakes that arise out of apathy towards the effects of development projects. Making sure that basic human rights of local communities are respected and enabling genuine and equitable local participation is a good place to start the process.
Acknowledging that development decisions and processes are much more than benign and intrinsically good decisions with beneficial outcomes and that development has the potential to damage as well as to benefit, compels the development theorist and planner to pre-empt the abuse of the development discourse for activities that harm rather than benefit a situation.
Some further reading:
In denial: the stolen generations and the right [Journal] / auth. Manne Robert. - [s.l.] : quarterly essay, 2001. - 1.
The samaritan's dilemma: the political economy of development aid [Book] / auth. Gibson Clark C..
Towards Development Ethics [Journal] / auth. Crocker David. - [s.l.] : World Development, 1991. - 5 : Vol. 19.