Reflections from an Unrepentant International Development Idealist

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For years and years every Friday morning at 8am, a small group of international development folks of many nationalities would gather for an hour over coffee and fruit in a well-appointed if sunless conference room in the first basement level of the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Whenever I was in Washington (i.e. when I wasn’t working overseas), I would take the opportunity to join them, which meant I was usually one of the regulars. Predominantly attended by World Bank staff, they were happy to include consultants and visitors like me in a common endeavor. In short, we talked values.

Sometimes “values” strayed into religion, or spirituality, or secular humanism. Often there was a guest presenter, and even I made a few presentations along the way.  I do remember some remarkably inspirational discussions…and 9am always came around too fast. We’d then return to our respective worlds of pragmatism, attending to the development “paradigm of the month” and the realities of the various institutional environments that shape how international “development” is supposed to happen.

Yet often I left the World Bank’s basement with the strong sentiment: “if only…”.

Over the years, and even long after the Friday Morning Group ceased (gray-haired regulars retired and younger people could not accommodate Friday meetings that early!), my “if only” list has only grown. Call me an optimist, an idealist, or even out-of-touch, although I would argue that the latter accusation is suspect given my more than 15 years based in developing countries, and more than twice that long doing development work. If you insist on disparaging me, then call me a wishful-thinker who views her world through those rose colored glasses that seem now to have fallen out of vogue. But don’t call me naïve, or a dreamer, or foolhardy…even if I do admit to one fundamental abnormality not shared by the majority of those who have given their careers to international development, poverty alleviation, humanitarian relief, or human rights activism: I am an unrepentant idealist.

Yes, I still believe in the basic goodness of people, and their potential to do the right thing…and for the right reason.

It’s a conviction that I’ve paid dearly for in terms of bucking the system and being an outsider. When I worked at a leading consulting firm and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) put out a comprehensive anti-corruption proposal some years ago, the terms of reference stipulated that all of the experts for the project ought to be economists. I pushed back, arguing that people are moved by many factors, and that we therefore instead ought to offer a balanced team of economists, political scientists, and development ethicists to capture more of the very human dynamics that truly define corruption (and integrity). The proposal was submitted accordingly and was promptly rejected by USAID; the competitor’s winning proposal took USAID at its word and provided only economists. Later at a different consulting firm, the donor’s terms of reference for a project on community-driven development completely ignored gender considerations, and in the draft proposal that I prepared I argued that we should showcase an approach that also featured the purposeful collaboration of men and women. I was told that this wasn’t the way the world (i.e. the patriarchy) worked, my draft of the proposal was rewritten to take out all of the references that I’d included that were based on gender equity, and the firm went on to win the project. My draft would clearly have failed.

When I worked as a political appointee at USAID, I was requested to review the drafts of both the new gender equality policy and the new anti-trafficking in persons policy. In both cases I raised the objection that the authors of each policy had chosen not to include any references to human rights. Adding human rights thinking into the conceptualization of development interventions in these two contexts would provide the essential motivational and humanizing elements that the empirical arguments on their own failed to convey, I asserted. I failed to persuade my peers, however, and my reputation took some further knocks. I made a similar attempt on USAID’s new Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance Strategy, taking the lead in writing the human rights section in the form of a very pragmatic narrative that balanced the traditional USAID focus on monitoring and mitigating human rights abuses, with a section on the promotion of positive human rights values. While this version cleared every level of review at USAID, at the very last and highest review stage it was stripped of most of the language about the implementation of the promotion of human rights (to make room for some unrelated but very trendy text on innovative technologies). Conceptually the promotion of human rights was diminished to fluffy rhetoric in this very important strategy, perhaps based on the assumption that people really don’t care very much about promoting human rights – at least until their rights are assaulted.

Later, when USAID rolled out its new initiative on mainstreaming political economy analysis (PEA) as the essential tool of development work, I invited a room full of USAID’s best thinkers and made a pitch that PEA was excellent – as far as it went. To a hushed room I then made the case that over-reliance on PEA would fail to take cognizance of the moral values beyond money and power that move people to behave in certain important ways – ways that are essential to social cohesion and peacebuilding. I saw around me a table of blank looks; I might as well have been speaking in the Klingon language.

Over the years I’ve designed project approaches in competitive proposals that donors reject because I make reference to virtues such as integrity (instead of only seeing corruption), care and compassion (instead of only seeing a world of self-interest), peacebuilding (instead of only conflict mitigation), or gender equity (instead of assuming that all men are invested in women’s subjugation as a given, or that all women are complacent in their submission to male power structures). I’ve argued that a system of human rights was much more than a body of international laws, but was also a comprehensive and ennobling set of moral principles that attempt to capture a humanity striving for meaning, purpose, and dignity – only to see the conversation revert strictly to issues of legal treaty compliance and failures in that context. And I have made the pitch for including every person under the umbrella of social inclusion (which is in effect a lateral way of arguing for universal human dignity), only to see nations demand to “qualify” social inclusion to exclude those who – they argue – “perversely choose immoral lifestyles” (hint: think same-sex relationships, or people like me who dare to express non-conforming gender identities).

Yes, I know that we are nowhere near achieving the global goals of gender equity, of respect for universal human dignity, or the acceptance (much less the celebration) of diversity among societies. I know that the patriarchy remains unyielding, that flailing combatants will almost always seek to negotiate peace through processes that exclude even the very notion of any representation by women, and that the vast majority of power and wealth will continue to remain firmly with powerful elites who show little if any compassion for their poorest and most disadvantaged citizens. I know that people who dare to be authentic if unconventional in their love and their identity will continue to face self-righteous hostility and violence “justified” by tradition or religion or political expediency. And I know that the plight of many children, many elderly persons, and many persons with disabilities will simply not attract any attention or resources, because these are often people without power, wealth, or political voice.  And yes, I know that labor unions will continue to be co-opted and corrupted by those who have a vested interest in the crass exploitation of labor to allow for profit maximization.

My hope, in the face of so much in-your-face “reality”, is modest. I seek only a dialogue of values as a regular part of international development practice. To date, with that inspired exception of the now-lapsed Friday Morning Group at the World Bank, the international development institutions almost never reserve any time, space, or resources for any regular discussion of values, nor do they often hold their senior decision-makers accountable to justify their decisions on the basis of human dignity, human rights, or social inclusion. They never hire development ethicists to offer provocative and thoughtful critiques on the values that drive development – or that ought to. And underlying it all is the conviction that human beings are fundamentally self-serving, self-interested, venal creatures who can however be manipulated and “incentivized” into certain more “socially acceptable” behaviors. It’s a cynical view of human nature that over time may ultimately generate some degree of self-fulfillment, given the now nearly universal lack of secular moral push-back.

It is a cynicism I reject.

I’ve looked into the eyes and into the hearts of too many wonderful individuals in the Global South to diminish them to this convenient theoretical role. Their eyes are filled with humanity, and their hearts are filled with love, just like most people everywhere. We should always find time and space to deliberate that very human reality, in Washington and everywhere where international development decisions are being made.




3 thoughts on “Reflections from an Unrepentant International Development Idealist

  1. Chloe–

    I admire your courage in the face of cynicism and rejection. I would call myself a cynical idealist: I continue to work for the values I believe in while only rarely having any optimism at all about success.


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