A Change to the Paradigm?

Chloe Schwenke speaking at the 2017 conference of the Society for International Development in Washington, DC.

Is it simply the height of absurdity for a small, start-up non-profit organization called the Center for Values in International Development to think we might provoke a course-correction for a major federal agency?

Almost certainly. Especially when this non-profit stands alone as the only organization of ethicists working in the international relief and development industry in the United States…and when the agency in question is USAID. After all, USAID has never issued a procurement asking for the input of applied ethics. And getting on top of the current discourse on morality and ethics isn’t high on the “to do” list of most busy development practitioners.

Applied ethics is what the Center for Values does – something remarkably common to so many other industries, professions, and activities. In that applied ethics role, we help to bring clarity to the many challenging moral and ethical issues that characterize all aspects of relief and development work, so that pragmatic and justifiable decisions can be made, and so that morally appropriate actions can follow. We elevate the role and importance of applying robust moral frameworks – not just human rights or “do no harm”, but many additional moral analytical frameworks too, to provide practitioners with a powerful toolbox to plan, design, implement, evaluate, and measure all areas of international relief and development. Finally, we strive to raise awareness among practitioners to help them incorporate moral insights into practical application in their work.

Some relief and development practitioners will say that a focus on values simply isn’t relevant or helpful. Many practitioners just haven’t given it any thought, in any formal sense. For many reasons, that is entirely understandable.

Still, it’s a safe assertion that the vast majority of those who have chosen to work in international relief and development are people deeply motivated by values. Such practitioners carry a concern about the high levels of human suffering in societies beset by poverty, poor governance, low quality and often unaffordable healthcare, inadequate access to decent basic services, underperforming agriculture, and – all too often – the devastation of violent conflict. Such relief and development practitioners want to do something meaningful to ameliorate this suffering, and to foster wellbeing.

As both a practitioner and an ethicist, I have made it part of my personal mission to ask fellow practitioners why they work in the relief and development industry. I have found that with just a bit of nudging they will tell you about their own values, and how motivational their values have been in directing them in their careers. They might even mention an inspirational mentor as well, or a local partner in the Global South who taught them to see the world in a different (and probably more balanced) way.

Sometimes they then pause, and comment that no one has ever before asked them about the values that informed their career.

It is only human to care about suffering, and attending to human suffering is the foundational definition of morality. We might presume that in our shared endeavors in relief and development work, we have in mind the possibility that we might make a difference in diminishing the pain, suffering, and hardship that so many people face, in a world that is structured by geopolitics and a highly skewed global marketplace to keep so many Global South people down. Yes, we are moved by moral conviction – but it’s not something that we feel encouraged to discuss.

Relief and development does have a very positive side too. Bringing humanitarian relief to people stricken by natural or man-made catastrophes is often lifesaving. Saving lives matters. At the least, humanitarian relief work is about being caregivers, and about respecting the urgency of the needs of people facing situations beyond any individual’s capacity to handle. Humanitarian relief work is also exhausting, sometimes wholly inadequate to the severity of the need, never well enough funded, but almost always worthwhile. At the end of the day, beyond the geopolitical justifications, humanitarian relief is almost always about caring for the needs of others. Do we talk about that motivation – the love, compassion, care, and sacrifices that many practitioners are called to make to help those most in need? Yes, we do – but not nearly enough.

Just as in humanitarian relief, international development also has an abundance of good news, worthy of note or even celebration.  Working closely with our partners in the Global South to promote peace and justice, facilitate the achievement of freedoms, opportunities, capabilities, self-respect, and democratic participation – this is valuable, meaningful work. We’ll herald the efficiency and effectiveness of the investment, and hopefully gain some wisdom from the “lessons learned” and the examples of “best practice”. Yet facilitating the expansion of freedoms and human agency, the upholding of hopes and aspirations for a better future, and the forging of international relationships of partnership and solidarity is the stuff of profound accomplishment, and deep meaning.

USAID staff and their implementing partners do this significant work in abundance, yet those stories seldom find their way into the media. The reports that do get disseminated generally fail to attract much of a supportive public; “those people over there” is not what the American public is focused on. Yet “those people” are so very much like us…and if told well, their development stories become compelling and very, very human.  

This essay opened with questioning the audacity of a small, start-up non-profit organization, with the Center for Values in International Development in mind. What might the Center for Values’ role be in all this reflection about USAID and values? The Center for Value’s byline is “moral clarity matters”, but does that assertion matter enough to change the patterns of an industry that appears, on the face of it, unlikely to embrace things that are based on that seemingly murky world of morality (even if the Center for Values offers some clarity among the murkiness)?

Time will tell, but as the founder and president of the Center for Values, I take heart in the fact that on March 24th USAID is hosting an all-Agency virtual event on the moral and ethical aspects of inclusive development, at which the Center for Values will be center stage. For a tiny NGO, that’s something to celebrate.

The complex landscape of moral values and ethical principles requires adroit navigation. It also takes thinking about values and making use of that shiny toolbox of ethical analysis tools. Working with values through the toolbox of applied ethics is what we do.

And yes, moral clarity matters.


Chloe Schwenke, Ph.D.
President and Founder
Center for Values in International Development
Washington, DC


Photo credit: SID-DC