In the monthly "Ethical Inquiry" series, we examine ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia, and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

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Ethical Inquiry: March 2013

Food Security


The ethics of international aid: Who should direct international aid efforts?

We all want the world to be a better place, but how to make that happen? Many focus on helping their own, local communities, but some are drawn to problems affecting communities across the planet. Maybe these problems are truly global, like global warming or gender inequality, and maybe these problems are region specific, like preserving dying languages or addressing specific political conflicts.

There are as many different ways to approach aid as there are situations in which aid is needed. Choices made by those directing and implementing aid efforts can make or break a project. Especially in cases where aid flows from developed to developing nations, the issue of who should be responsible for directing and implementing those aid efforts is very real.

In this installment of “Ethical Inquiry” we ask: Who has the right to make those choices? Who should be in charge of directing what money and which resources goes where, and to what end? Should it be the professionals? Those who are most passionate? The intended beneficiaries? Those supplying the resources? Governments and/or international organizations?

The professionals

In the field of international development, credentials like educational degrees are not the only factor in an individual’s “professionalism.” According to Dave Algoso, an international development professional, all one needs to be a professional is commitment: in order to be considered a professional in the international development world, you need the same level of commitment required of any other professional discipline. In other words, this needs to be your only job, not just a part-time project.

This commitment and lack of emphasis on marketability becomes clear when professionals make the decisions. Most professionals do not spearhead “sexy” aid projects (that is, projects working on big-name, easily understood and publicly supported issues like HIV/AIDS, extreme poverty, or microfinance). Instead, most work on projects that may seem smaller and less exciting, but still have a huge impact on communities.

On a larger scale, though, professionals spearheading large-scale efforts can be the source of much controversy. Renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs and his Millennial Villages Project provides an example of this controversy. His project is not only large in physical scale, but also large in its implications – causing many to question whether the huge implications of the project negatively impact the ability of the leadership to critically examine the effects on the ground.

Concerned that those directing projects can be too close to the issue, some call for a new emphasis on research into the effectiveness of any aid project and not just into the idea of the project. Many in academia suggest that accountability in the actual work of the organization is key, with the previously linked articles being several among many examples addressing the role, challenges, and strategies of accountability within the international aid world. Maybe that is the most effective place for professionals to focus their efforts?

Those with passion and moral conviction

Should we trust that people with passion and moral conviction are guided by these intangible forces, and that while they might fail it is only by accident? There are certainly examples of people with absolutely no experience doing incredible things for others a world away – but there are also examples of such people doing more harm than good.

Nicholas Kristof thinks that the good done by these people far outweighs any harm, and that their actions exponentially increase the benefits by inspiring others and sparking a desire to do good in many more people. There are many examples of these types of people those motivated by passion but not experts in the work they are taking on, including Greg Mortenson with the Central Asia Institute – made famous by his book Three Cups of Tea – and Sam Childers with the Angels of East Africa – made famous by the recent movie Machine Gun Preacher starring Gerard Butler. Both of these organizations inspire many people, and so both have huge constituencies that they draw upon to allow them to do an incredible amount of work. Kristof might argue that these are the people who are the future of international aid, and that despite a few hiccups the work they are doing is better than nothing. 

Others, however, criticize the tangible actions of the organizations and believe that despite their great resources they do more harm than good. The issues are different for each: with Greg Mortensen the primary issues have to do with the veracity of his statements regarding how and why he started the institute, and the distribution of the institute’s finances. This undermining of trust and problematic finances has caused many to question whether he is the correct leader for an international aid effort, and whether he is trustworthy or capable.

In the case of Sam Childers, the founder of Angels of East Africa and the protagonist in Machine Gun Preacher – the criticism is of his methodology and the ethics of how he is helping. He goes on raids to free the child soldiers that his organization supposedly works to rehabilitate, violently extricating the children from the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda to orphanages with conditions which some call unacceptably negligent.

Those whom the aid is intended to benefit

On the other side of the situation are those whom the aid is intended to: the beneficiaries. Development guided by the beneficiaries is generally called “community-driven development,” and according to the World Bank  “potentially constitutes an important approach in the repertoire of development interventions because it is designed to place less stress on government line agencies by optimizing the use of community actors, yet at the same time reach very large numbers of poor people.” While this explanation takes a very donor-specific approach to the issue – perhaps unsurprising, given that it is the World Bank’s wording – essentially this type of development is lauded as being most effective because of the high emphasis placed on fostering responsibility within the community, empowering individuals and giving them control over their own situation.  

Through his analysis of processes of local accountability practices Chris Roche explicitly addresses this, stating that “social-accountability initiatives have the potential to give a voice to those who should ultimately be benefiting from the actions of international aid organisations to express their views, and thus allow the effectiveness of aid and also international advocacy to be assessed; and they may also have the potential to start to shape what a future international agenda needs to encompass.” (See “Oxfam Australia’s Experience of ‘Bottom-Up’ Accountability” in Development in Practice 19(8)).)

This particular mode of development has a large number of proponents, including American Jewish World Service president Ruth Messinger and Eliza and Judy Dushku of THRIVE-Gulu who spoke at Brandeis University’s annual ’DEIS Impact! festival of social justice in 2012 and 2013, respectively. These speakers echo what many adherents to community driven development say; that is, as others have put it, “listen to poor people, don’t just hand out cash.” 

Ruth Messinger explains this particularly eloquently:

“I want to tell you that the developing world … is littered – literally – with buildings that were built by well-meaning clubs. Ask a community, “What is that building up on the hill?” and they say “Well, you know, 10 years ago people came here and they built a school.” I say, “Oh, really?” “Yes,” they say,” but we have no money for teachers.” Or, “That’s not the place for a school.” Or, “That’s not really what we needed – but they came and that’s what they wanted to do.” Not only is that disrespectful of the fact that people best know what they need and need your help in making it come true, but it gives a lousy reputation to the Westerners who go to these countries. People arrive with obvious wealth and resources and physical, human power and then they do something that’s in their brains that they think is what the community needs – but not what the community says it wants.”

That being said, obviously issues can arise. Judy Dushku, professor of politics at Suffolk University and a founder of THRIVE-Gulu touched upon this in her talk, discussing the wishes of the people in Gulu regarding what they wanted from THRIVE-Gulu:

“We didn’t want to build a security fence around the acre, that was not one of our priorities. But, one of our other things apart from ‘from victim to survivor to thriver,’ one of the other models we have for ourselves is that we believe ‘there should be nothing about us without us.’ So, we have always asked our beneficiaries, what do you want us to do.… We have staff there, we pay them salaries and they’re a great staff and we consulted them and said ‘we would like to complete a building on the property’ but at the time they said not until we get a security wall…. So now we have a beautiful $30,000 wall.”

It wasn’t until later that the organization realized why the wall was needed (to prevent theft of the computers being supplied to the community).

At times the wishes of the community may seem counterproductive to their developmental needs in light of limited resources, particularly limitations of time and money. Thus, the question must be asked, do those receiving the benefit of aid know what is best for improving the situation? Certainly policies of economic development enacted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund known as Structural Adjustment Programs (discussed below) stand in stark opposition to this, given their fundamental basis in the proposition that their knowledge and expertise are better than any other ideas of economic development. Are the beneficiaries too close to the situation? Do they lack the relevant expertise and experience compared to other potential leaders?

Those with the resources (i.e. money and to some extent, time.)

The question of whether those with money and time should be privileged is another aspect that must be taken into account. This question exists on two primary planes: the individual, and the structural.

On the individual level, this debate can be seen whenever a celebrity starts an organization dedicated to a particular cause, for example the musician Bono and his work in Africa. Many journalists pointed out that not all Africans were supportive of his work on their continent, arguing that the aid being given was not only not what was needed, and did more harm than good. Encouragingly, Bono has taken these critiques seriously, but given his placement as a huge media figure with substantial resources at his disposal has continued his work in the region.

On the structural level, there is an ongoing debate on the implications of the flow of aid from the “first world” to the “third world.” Analysts like Tomohisa Hattori do not see international aid as the straightforward story of simple philanthropy, but rather as a far more complex structural system based on dominance and indebtedness, with socio-political implications beyond the act of aid distribution (See “Reconceptualizing Foreign Aid” in Review of International Political Economy 8(4)).

The majority of aid does flow from organizations in the United States, Europe and other affiliated states to wherever it is intended, which might have unintended consequences. USAID has been criticized for many reasons, particularly concerning its programs of food distribution from crop surpluses within the US. The agency has attempted to address some of these issues. Nonetheless, many argue that basing their efforts on redistribution of food from the US to other regions of the world costs more, undermines local economies, and in many cases does not provide adequate nutrition.

Studies like that by Mesfin Bezuneh, Brady J. Deaton, and George W. Norton assessing the effects of programs based on working for food or developing local food continually point to the benefits of longer-term emphasis being placed on local agricultural production, which in large part runs counter to the work being done by USAID (See “Food Aid Impacts in Rural Kenya” in American Journal of Agricultural Economics 70(1)). Those with resources are a potentially a huge asset and can do much good; the question is whether or not they are living up to their potential.

Governments and/or International Organizations

Governments and large international organizations like the United Nations, the World Bank, or the International Monetary Fund are among the largest potential resource-rich aid sources. They are responsible for much of the grand total of international aid – but should they be? There are many who believe governments or large international organizations are best able to enact international aid.

Governments have massive resources at their disposal – political force, money, and personnel, to name just a few – with which they can affect huge change, which is particularly essential in a crisis situation. Furthermore, one of the greatest roles a government can play in these situations is in legitimizing the situation, and drawing international and popular attention to an issue. These two aspects in particular form the basis for such international campaigns like the Millennium Development Goals, which claim to find solutions as much in advocacy and attention building work as in resource management.

Given their size both governments and international organizations like the UN tend to act as support mechanisms for smaller projects – USAID, the UNDP, and other such institutions have myriad projects in virtually every field of development. They act on a large scale, but simultaneously on a very individual basis.

Gilbert Rist suggests, however, that this flow of aid from the governments of richer nations to poorer nations is “genuinely hegemonic, because it appeared to be not only the best [solution] but the only possible one.” (See The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith). Aid is political, in his view.

Whether aid is political or not, politics can affect the manner in which aid is distributed. The IMF and World Bank are prime examples of this, with their chosen method of fixing what they see as a broken system being the aforementioned series of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), that are designed to stimulate economic growth and are a requirement for applicant governments seeking a loan to enact prior to receiving World Bank or IMF funds. These SAPs have come under a huge amount of criticism, however, with observers suggesting that they work only in very few cases, and in the majority do more harm than good.

Inept government policies do not only originate from overseas, however, but can be seen in the misguided policies of many local governments. James C. Scott describes a series villagization schemes in Tanzania, which he says “were often spectacular failures. As units of production, as human communities, or as a means of delivering services, the planned villages failed the people they were intended, sometimes sincerely, to serve.” (See Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed)

Final Thoughts: A combination approach?

International aid and the development of socioeconomic conditions around the globe is cited by many to be the problem of our time, yet as we can see there is no clear answer to who should spearhead an effort to fix it, let alone what that effort would look like.

In part this is because it is such a complex issue. It is political, but at the same time more than just political actors are involved in the flow of aid from country to country. So, of all those involved, who should take charge? Perhaps there should be some sort of collaboration?

Good aid is as simple as good leadership and good business – it needs multiple points of view, contends and international humanitarian worker respected blogger J. (who stays anonymous to avoid conflict of interest issues). Perhaps the Gates Foundation’s ideology of bringing together highly qualified individuals to work together on the same problem with input from locals will lead the way to a sustainable future.

But even then, who should be guiding the direction of the efforts? Should it be those with the greatest experience and the most knowledge about the process? Or, should it be those who are living the problem, and have the most at stake? Should it be those who have their strength of belief and moral certitude? Or, should it be governments or large organizations that direct the flow and enactment of aid? Or, should it simply be whoever has the money and the time? Does passion trump experience? Is the institution more competent than the individual?

These are not easy questions, and may be questions without a clear answer.

But decisions about international affect the health and well-being – even the very survival – of literally thousands if not millions of people around the globe.

What do you think?

Have suggestions for additional content that looks at the ethical issues surrounding international aid? Let us know:

This installment of "Ethical Inquiry" was researched and written by Ariana Hajmiragha ’13.