Category Archives: Development Ethics

Tentative and inadequate: global response to the most marginalized


International development and human rights organizations are only beginning to think through the transgender and intersex phenomena. Given the tragic acceleration in rates of violence around the world, this “thinking through” is taking a very long time, and we’ve yet to see any significant increase in funding for international human rights or development programs aimed at this population. Nor have the main actors in the world of human rights and development really done much to staff up with persons of appropriate skills and experience to address transgender and intersex concerns.

These main actors – USAID, UNDP, UNICEF, State/DRL and others – are relatively well advanced on their positions on issues affecting gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons. The plight of transgender and intersex persons generally – and incorrectly – continues largely to be conflated with “gay” issues. The assumption seems to be that every reader will simply know the differences between sexual orientation and gender identity and act accordingly. That’s an absurd premise; UNICEF’s recent position paper is a very good example. The short document is really only about sexual orientation. Yes, the words “gender identity” are sprinkled throughout, but there are no clear references to what that means with respect to the unique challenges of discrimination, humiliation, violence, legal recognition, and fundamental human agency of transgender and intersex persons. Remarkably, for an organization focused on children, there is no reference to the fact that nearly all transgender persons first come to the realization of their transgender status when they are most vulnerable, as small children. Continue reading Tentative and inadequate: global response to the most marginalized

The Missing Ethicists


There’ve been murmurings in Washington about a new “dignitarian dialogue.” Perhaps this is code for a renewed interest in discussing the elusive concept of human dignity? There’s even angst being expressed about human rights, such as the wringing of hands associated with Prof. Hopgood’s assertion last year that the global human rights framework is collapsing all around us. In Hopgood’s words, a “150-year experiment in creating global rules to protect and defend individual human beings is coming to an end”. Despite all of these wheels spinning, the actual focus on global human rights remains largely where it has been for many years – on violations, laws, and trade-offs.

The sobering, endless task of cataloguing the vast array of assaults upon human dignity in the form of human rights violations is essential, if only to hold up the prospect that some legal recourse may at some point be forthcoming. In practical terms, the growing volume and intensity of such violations, and the impunity under which so many authoritarian regimes and extremist elements operate using such tactics, together undercuts any argument that monitoring violations will ultimately lead to a change in human behavior or to an improvement in governance standards. In fact, it can lead us all to conclude that humanity is basically rotten.

Naturally there’s much more to global ethics and the “good” of good governance than tabulating egregious human rights violations, and regularly publicizing statements of outrage. That I should even be making this observation is noteworthy; while there are well established professions in legal and medical ethics, there’s no institutionalized demand for the advice of any equivalent group of development or foreign affairs ethicists. The few people with relevant normative expertise largely remain hunkered down within academia, where they at least have some prospect of a salary. Efforts to gain employment as an international development ethicist with government, civil society, aid donors, globally-focused foundations, or foreign affairs think tanks are at best premature. Continue reading The Missing Ethicists

Human rights and international development – time to change!


In the numerous descriptions and lists of human rights, which human rights come first?

This isn’t a new debate. Philosophers have argued this for centuries; most agree that the human right to life is fundamental, but in 1980 Henry Shue made a persuasive argument that there is a subset of “basic rights” including the right to minimal subsistence. By subsistence rights, Shue was referring to a minimum level of well-being, now more commonly referred to as economic rights. Continue reading Human rights and international development – time to change!