Ethics and International Development

On the surface, relief and development seems like the simplest, most ethical work in the world. Helping people in need looks easy. Like most work worth doing, though, it’s extraordinarily complicated.

These are just a few, representative, ethical dilemmas:

1. Giving stuff instead of training and capacity building creates a culture of dependency. People rely on what you are giving them instead of finding a way to get it themselves. They get in the habit of looking outside their communities for positive change. And when you stop providing aid, they’ll have lost the skill of providing for themselves. Providing training and technical assistance requires huge amounts of money to be paid to outside experts, while leaving immediate needs unmet.

2. Hiring your staff locally and paying them well distorts the local labor market and pulls local talent away from government, local NGOs, and other domestic institutions. Paying market average salaries makes it hard to recruit and retain staff. It leaves your staff struggling to survive, and guarantees resentment of expatriate employees. Programs based on expat labor don’t help the local economy, and they cost a fortune.

3. Following host government policy will often require you to move so slowly that people suffer, waiting for your programs to get going. You may be forced to use outdated models for your programs. Ignoring host government policy erodes local capacity and weakens the government, which can lead to mass suffering if the government loses control of the country.

4. Paying bribes to get things done promotes a culture of corruption and is illegal under US law. Refusing to pay bribes will get you kicked out of the country, abandoning your partner communities.

5. Working with institutions such as orphanages and homes for the disabled provides help to the most vulnerable segments of the population. Orphanages and institutions, however, have been conclusively demonstrated to be the worst approach to care. Your assistance in improving these places may help to keep them in existence and encourage placing children in them.

I am not telling you to get depressed and give up. I’m really not; doing nothing also has terrible consequences. I am telling you to think about the choices you make and what those choices mean. Look for the unintended consequences of your programs. Do your homework. Red about similar efforts, what went right and what went wrong. Talk to your local staff and other NGOs.

You will have to make choices that cause damage. Make sure your positive impact is exponentially greater.

(photo credit: edmittance)