The banality of certainty: Debating the ethics and psychology of aid
By Pablo Yanguas.
23 February 2017
On 3 February I attended a fascinating workshop at the University of Sheffield hosted by frequent ESID collaborator Tom Goodfellow. Under the title ‘Ethical dilemmas and cognitive dissonance in international development’, the event brought together scholars from across the social sciences, policy researchers, as well as current and former practitioners. It was a day full of genuinely new and thought-provoking ideas, of the kind that we don’t often have in academic debates on aid and development more generally. So much so, that the visible excitement of participants outpaced our ability to put together a coherent agenda for future research. Still, this is a set of questions with direct relevance to development practice, and the links to psychology and moral philosophy are welcome additions to the chiefly economistic or sociological debates within Development Studies.
It was one of those few occasions in academia when you go in not knowing what to expect in advance. As it turned out, most people in the room had already devoted some time to the question of cognitive dissonance in development, drawing upon a variety of experiences, ranging from the ethnographic observation of the volunteer industry to the experimental study of bias in World Bank personnel. Much to my delight, a number of people around the room were also happy to engage with ethical issues. Having presented a few times the philosophical challenges that I explore in my new article on political settlements and ethics of aid, it was a respite to not be the sole person in the room throwing around terms like morality or utilitarianism.
My own presentation was a spinoff of the ideas in that article, but also a summary of one key argument from my book manuscript, ‘Why We Lie About Aid’, which I am in the process of finishing. In a nutshell, I believe that the value-for-money agenda that the British coalition government (and other conservative peers around the world) introduced after the financial crisis has created a number of pathologies inside the aid industry: agencies have increasingly had to focus on accounting and (somewhat falsified) measurement, instead of actual development; practitioners are subject to so many layers of compliance requirements that they have little cognitive space left to think systematically and avoid biases; and the industry as a whole is deprived of a moral compass when forced to kowtow to the relentless pursuit of efficiency.
I took the inspiration for my title from a most unlikely source: Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), political theorist Hannah Arendt‘s account of the trial of a Nazi concentration camp guard. I picked this reference not because of a sensationalist fascism/value-for-money analogy, but because of its insightful reflection on the moral negligence inherent to just following orders within the system. Here’s the money quote:
Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.