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IDHA 45 Lecture Brief: “Our House: Aid, Development, and Sustainability in the Globalized Age”

As the 48th International Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance (IDHA) approaches this Sunday, we share with you a brief of a lecture given on last year’s course by Patrick Walsh, Senior Adviser at SDSN.

After 18 months of international dialogue with experts from UN organizations, academia, civil society, business, and various national statistical offices, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) headed by economist Jeffrey Sachs drafted its 2015 report. The report, Indicators and a Monitoring Framework for the Sustainable Development Goals, “outlines how a comprehensive indicator framework might be established to support the goals and targets proposed by the Open Working Group on [Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)].”

These goals encompass economic, social, and environmental policy fields and aim to provide a quantifiable framework for the construction and monitoring of local, national, regional, and global SDG progress. “We can’t isolate economic, social, and environmental policy anymore,” noted Patrick Walsh, Senior Adviser at SDSN. Walsh was leading IDHA’s afternoon lecture on the transition from crisis to development—where the need for humanitarian relief turns to that of nation building and sustainability. “Maybe in talking about that transition,” proposed Walsh, “we really see how to connect development to the humanitarian world.”

This connection, however, contains multiple points of resistance. The policy fields included in the report “have to be integrated both in the developing world and the developed world,” noted Walsh. But as the students quickly confirmed, such sustainable integration, not only between policy fields but also between international departments and organizations, often proves to be a difficult—and arguably unfeasible—partnership.

“Jeffrey Sachs’ answer to this is, of course, [that] development is what’s really important,” Walsh explained, “because if you don’t make progress in development, you’re just setting up crises of the future.” Ascribing financial primacy to crisis aid may provide temporary security solutions, but it fails to combat the very conditions from which future conflicts, and therefore future spending, will later arise—and will continue to arise—at the expense of the international community. Development becomes imperative, and Sachs “already thinks the resources are being wrongly allocated.”

Unfortunately, such challenges will not simply evaporate, nor can they be swept aside. In fact, successful progress with the sustainability goals outlined in the report hinges on resolving precisely these difficulties. Partnership is the fulcrum by which SDG progress is set into motion; progress is not made unless partnership is achieved. The “transformative ideas” brought to light by the report underscore this need for universality.

“Before we used to think of development as simply overseas development aid or foreign aid, where it’s the northern hemisphere donating to the southern hemisphere,” Walsh explained, “and that the southern hemisphere has to ‘catch up’ and work.” Environmental issues and climate change models radically challenge such assumptions and put pressure on the global community—though in terms of climate change, responsibility rests primarily with the northern hemisphere.

“But we fear it’s not just environmental issues,” Walsh admitted. “When people look at global value chains and industrial structures, there’s more and more of a realization with global finance and global trade—and even with global migration—that really the world has gotten much more interconnected.” The interconnectivity of global challenges calls for a holistic approach, despite the continued “polarization” of governmental departments and institutions. “We cannot in isolation look at security, in isolation look at social development, in isolation look at environment,” explained Walsh. Nor for that matter can these issues be solely the responsibility of governments. “Solutions have to be found where private sector, civil society, the government, and academia” intersect and where the incentives of each align.

“Households naturally [implement] sustainable approaches,” began Walsh, hoping to better explain the difficulty in aligning interests. “Any household I know, they focus a lot on children (they sacrifice a lot to put kids through school); […] the adults are investing in pension schemes and other things so that they will have security when they’re old; there is always a struggle around nutrition, so that when you’re young you eat properly so that you’ll be healthier when you’re older. This is what households are doing: they are all the time on the medium-long-term plan—always. When there’s a big financial shock, […] they delay fertility decisions; they take kids out of private schools; […] they don’t go on holiday. […] Whatever they have to do, they make that adjustment and that response to keep them on track to meet their long-term goals. Do we think governments do that? No. Do we think the private sector does that? Do we think NGOs do that? And this is the problem. This, to me, is the essence of [the question] of how do we somehow align the values and align all these groups and have a more medium-term, long-term perspective.”

“The vision here, under Jeffrey Sachs,” Walsh concluded, “was to start thinking about these types of partnerships and how they might deliver sustainable development goals.” For the UN, ‘sustainability’ entails the interaction between “three pillars:” economy, society, and environment. Walsh anticipated the audience’s concern: Oftentimes, “you might look at foreign direct investment and investment goals, and you might say, ‘that’s the evil of the world; their going in with their value chains to get the lowest cost labor, the lowest cost raw materials without much respect for the environment—the whole world is fused with these value chains and its very very destructive.’”

This assumption is certainly not unfounded. But “on the other hand,” countered Walsh, “you could look at industrial policy at a nation state where governments can have investment criteria.” Governments possess the capacity to dictate economic terms and set clear investment incentives. In theory, companies and corporations “should not really be trying to exploit gaps in societies and environments,” said Walsh; “all those gaps should be closed.” They should instead be incentivized to be on one level “mindful of human rights” and on another level “creating positive outcomes for societies and environments.”

This is of course the ideal, but as Walsh explained, such a project is not unattainable. Creating positive outcomes becomes a matter of creating “a demand for responsible investment.” The difficulty arises in the reconciliation of two key policy challenges: sustaining economic growth and tackling rising inequality. “The challenge of the Sustainable Development Project,” Walsh clarified, “is that we need to start thinking about new institutions, new ways of doing things, new policies that actually allow us to have economic prosperity but [those that generate] much more inclusive societies.”

Walsh drew the students’ attention to one particular working group goal outlined in the report—Goal 16: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” Indicators for attaining this include the reduction of violence, abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and arms flow, as well as the promotion of the rule of law and equal access to justice.

This goal, Walsh believed, falls most closely in line with the efforts of humanitarians on the ground. While it is certainly ambitious and perhaps lacking in the level of accountability or adequate “benchmarks” that many students believed requisite in assessing development, the goal, nevertheless, acts as a clear enunciation of sustainable objectives for the international community. One must consider the “developmental histories” of our own countries, Walsh explained. A state does not simply “jump” from one stage of development to the next; the process occurs slowly and often with the assistance of external players. “We have to build the nation state before the nation state can take responsibility,” Walsh concluded.

To better understand this development, it can be useful to run the process in reverse—understanding the factors that destabilize states and lead to collapse. “I wanted to try and get back to why a state fails,” explained Walsh, “and then—in terms of even your basic military and humanitarian intervention and what happens at ground zero—[ask] what sort of principles and what sort of things should really be happening in the humanitarian, the military, and the development interface.” What factors contribute to societal unrest and state instability, and how can the knowledge of these factors produce potential solutions for external organizations in constructing “development pathways from conflict”?

In his paper, Patterns of Conflict in the Great Lakes Region, Walsh analyzes the discrepancy between conflict developments across neighboring African states. The report juxtaposes two separate “zones”: zone 1—comprising Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo—representing the “conflict” states, and its “counterweight,” zone 2—comprising Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia —representing the “peaceful states.” The goal, as outlined in the report, is to “identify a set of structural and historical factors (if any), that differentiate the zone 1 from the zone 2 states and which can explain the incidence of conflicts across time and countries.”

“What I’m searching for is a set of structural factors—a combination of things, whether they’re economic, social, or government structures—that makes you more vulnerable to conflict or less,” Walsh explained. By juxtaposing historical, economic, societal, and governmental developments, Walsh was searching for the underlying conditions that gave zone 1 a greater propensity for unrest. “The argument that I am going to make is that those who embraced developmentparticularly more openness in [their] society and their economies and were less fractional (less [prone] to creating two separate groups) were the ones who came out the other side without conflict.

Walsh noted some possible objections to his methodology. Some theorists maintain that every conflict is “idiosyncratic” and thus resistant to the kind of statistical analysis academics such as himself may hope to perform. If this idiosyncrasy were the case, however, analysis would reveal statistical uncertainties, and Walsh believed his findings told a much different story. Though the largest single indicator on the regression was precisely these “idiosyncratic effects by region and by conflict,” the indicator only accounted for about 40% of the variation, meaning there was a combination of separate, quantifiable factors contributing to zone 1’s propensity for conflict. (The fact that the idiosyncrasies was the largest single indicator means only that no other one factor could determine the variation between zones; it was thus a combination of historical, economic, societal, and governmental factors that contributed to this variation).

One of the most significant of such factors was colonial history. Colonization often lead to linguistic and ethnic fractionalization, destabilizing factors that later impacted social and economic development. The colonial power that had the most detrimental effect on states was Belgium. The Belgians used a particular type of strategy of indirect rule where they would “use and augment previous distinctions to define a local ruling elite.” This system proved the most destructive and “was a much bigger feature of Rwanda, Uganda, etc. that naturally had a north-south divide,” Walsh explained. Belgian rule acts a natural indicator of ethnic divide, but the Belgians were not the only force that perpetuated such divisions —Uganda, for instance, while belonging to zone 1, was not colonized by Belgium, but was rather divided due to its topography. What the Belgian indicator represents is rather the much greater destabilizing trend of ethnic divisions, perpetuated either by history or geography.

As the report concludes, “zone 1 states began the period of independence with serious vulnerabilities: particular forms of colonialism interlocked with ethnic divisions to produce conflict potential. However this was far from determining. It was the addition of other factors—military dictatorships, an isolation from the wider economy, and, particularly as violence developed, a hollowing out of the adult population and a destruction of civil society, that produced high conflict risk.” Likewise, countries in zone 2 though beginning their development trajectories on much more favorable historical conditions, nevertheless, required “subsequent choices and events, openness to international trade and aid, civilian dictatorships with strong integrative ideologies [(dictatorships indicated statistically greater levels of stability)], that permitted the building of cultural, political, and civil society barriers— [like an] immune system—against conflict.”

Though the conclusion produces no groundbreaking discoveries in the generation of conflict, it does provide a quantifiable explanation to compliment contemporary literature. It also helps to isolate developmental factors such as economic and political structures that may themselves help to “mitigate the initial conditions” of conflict —colonization, ethnic divisions, language, etc.

“When we go in with humanitarian action or we do capacity building, to build a state, build a colony, build a society,” explained Walsh, “we [should be] looking at how these economic or social indicators of development” may help in the intervention during times of conflict, and later, in the prevention of future conflicts. And in the end, the knowledge that prevention is critical and indeed possible becomes essential. “Those who are in the humanitarian world and the development world,” concluded Walsh, “have to believe that if we go into other countries, that we have to [contribute to a] change for good—that we’re pushing or nudging society, politics, and the economy in a direction that’s peaceful, that’s inclusive and responsible.” Otherwise, why go in at all?


Lecture given by Patrick Walsh, Senior Adviser at UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) to the IDHA 45 class at Fordham University, New York, June 2015

Brief written by Joshua Paul St. Clair, IIHA Summer 2015 Intern

Professor Patrick Walsh also gave a TED talk this past February 2016 focusing on the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and how it is an agenda of the people with the responsibility of implementation by the people. He delves into how people must use their influence over their livelihoods, civil society, and governance to create successful partnerships on local, national, and international levels.



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IDHA 45 Lecture Brief: “The Moral Cartographer: Difficulties in the Construction of Humanitarian Ethics”

“When I introduce ‘ethics’ there’s a tendency for there to be a big yawn,” began Anthony Land, Ph.D., Senior Fellow at the IIHA. “One imagines,” he continued, “I’m going to get into a very boring subject, which is only really [covered in] those big books on the bottom shelf of the library, collecting dust.” The audience laughed. But Land was quick to note that this approach was “not quite what I’m going to be presenting.” Land’s intention—far from merely picking up that old, dusty behemoth and clearing its jacket—was instead to tear out the book’s essential pages and apply them directly. From principles, to institutions, to individuals, and finally to actions, maintaining operational consistency along this vertical spectrum is perhaps the most difficult element of applied ethics. Decisions made on the local level often fail to align with frameworks constructed at the cosmopolitan. Through his presentation, Land aimed to provide students with the means of navigating this inconstancy and bridging the chasm between theory and practice.

Ethics is constructed upon standards—“legal standards, social standards—but they have to be well-founded […] grounded on something that’s solid, and they prescribe what humans ought to do—in terms of rights, but also in terms of obligations,” Land explained. The “ongoing” process of ethics is “really a question of a continuous reflection and trying to make sure that our actions” actually meet the standards of the institutions that have established them.

But “the world we work in as humanitarians,” Land noted, “is often the least perfect of all worlds.” How one is able to implement absolute rules in an imperfect world becomes the core challenge of humanitarian ethics. It would appear that flexibility is paramount, and most students in the class seemed to agree. But flexibility carries with it its own challenges, namely, the extent to which such laws and standards become malleable. “If you agree with this, [then] where do you stop bending and disregarding the rules?” Land challenged the students.

The tension between upholding and bending standards exists at the core of moral decision-making. “Ethical dilemmas pervade our work,” iterated Land, and they often boil down to this very tension between adherence and adaptation. The former is a matter of duty, of the obligation to hold oneself accountable to standards and laws (not just legal, but social and moral). This notion, that “rules bind you to duty,” is the fundamental tenant of the deontological approach to ethics. “Deontological ethics at any level,” Land explained, “tends to emphasize ‘accountability’”; it focusses on the means of a given action.

The latter viewpoint of adaptation holds standards as imperfect, flexible guidelines and grants primacy to an action’s ends corresponds to a consequentialist approach. “If you take a consequentialist view, you tend to emphasize not accountability but ‘responsibility,’” noted Land, “because whatever the outcome is—whether you predict it or not, whether it is bound by rules or not—you have to be responsible for that outcome.” The distinction between these ethical approaches, however, is not always clear-cut, and the moral ambiguities presented by a given scenario in the field often forces humanitarian aid workers to adopt a middle approach. Balancing duties and consequences remains a fundamental challenge at each level of decision making.

The Principles

Atop the “ethical cascade” stands the humanitarian principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. The principle of humanity states that “the purpose of humanitarian action is to protect life and health and ensure respect for human beings” (OCHA). As Land bluntly declared, “if that principle is not accepted as the sole purpose within the organization, the individual, and the action, we don’t qualify as humanitarians”; it should be the principle most vertically adoptable along the ethical cascade. This seemingly obvious principle of humanitarian action, however, becomes difficult to qualify. Which life is one obligated to protect—which side—and what means should one go about doing so? Though the end of humanitarian action seems uniform, many points of contention lie between the prerogative to provide aid and the complex reality of relief efforts during situations of conflict.

Some may hold that the principles of humanitarian aid admit no ambiguity, that the “purpose” is uniform and its terms require no explication. The principle of neutrality, however, is anything but rudimentary. Can one maintain personal or professional neutrality in conflict zones? “I first used this slide in Beirut,” Land reflected. He was delivering the presentation to Syrian national staff at a time in which the UN was considering “pulling out completely” and leaving the local staff in charge. “I put this question up and there was just a stunned silence,” Land told the students. “Finally, one brave soul in the back said, ‘No. Of course we can’t,’ and everyone agreed.”

There’s an “enormous” cost to maintaining that professional neutrality, especially when local aid workers find themselves forced to assist neighboring aggressors —expressed in this not uncommon sentiment which Land iterated: “Why the hell are you taking aid to those people over there today, when they are shelling us tonight? Are you crazy?” Or as one young man once explained to Land: every time he sees his father he is told to “resign from that job, go pick up a gun, and go fight for the cause.” The principle of impartiality may dictate that the humanitarian works “on the side of the victim whichever side the victim is on,” but identifying the aggressor is sometimes a difficult designation to make.

The Organization

In the ‘Age of Liberal Humanitarianism’ following the crises of the early 1990’s, “the international community of humanitarians [began to question] the very essence of what it meant to be a humanitarian,” explained the professor. Three documents became the “core to the crystallization of much of this thinking”: The Humanitarian Charter, the Sphere Standards, and the Code of Conduct. These frameworks sought to reconstitute the humanitarian approach and to “recommit the international community to humanitarian values, largely as absolutes, as rules.” The three documents “all emphasized duty,” Land pointed out. They indicated a movement towards ‘accountability’ and an ethos that stood largely upon the core values of the deontologist. The “Humanitarian Imperative” was clearly defined: “The right to receive humanitarian assistance and to offer it is a fundamental humanitarian principle which should be enjoyed by all citizens of all countries” (ICRC). The language, Land pointed out, was “very absolutist” and sought to establish clear “rules binding us to duty.”

The “moral shift towards this insistence of humanitarian aid and protection” reflected the emergence of a ‘rights-based approach’ to humanitarianism. Though this concept may not appear novel, on a cosmopolitan stage of legal and social development, the approach proved quite ambitious—and unprecedented. Hugo Slim, Associate Director and Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, maintained that the Sphere Standards reflected a clear revaluation of the humanitarian effort. For Slim, the standards represented “‘a really quantifiable way of expressing what this ethical humanitarian duty would look like in writing.’”

The Sphere Standards are not just “moral obligations”; rather, they introduce a “latrine-based” approach to ethics—that is, one which attempts to provide clear content, i.e., providing specific utilities, rather than bold rhetoric. That being said, the standards do also seek to ensure “not just survival, but a life of dignity,” and they aim to provide this through a clearly-explicated framework, one in which human needs are founded on a “legal basis”—not just a right to life, but a right to a dignified existence. “This is an extraordinary attempt to specify rights and duties,” Land reiterated.

The “latrine-based” approach became indicative not only of the international community’s shift to a more deontological framework, but also signified something much more telling: an attempt to quantify moral obligation and, in many ways, turn duty into law. As Slim noted, such efforts embodied an extraordinary attempt to specify rights and duties that was unprecedented in international law.

But despite the bold rhetoric and ambitious efforts of these proposed legal frameworks, many in the field found the reality of such pronouncements unrealistic. “The humanitarian pragmatists, the ethical consequentialists see the Humanitarian Imperative as being blind to the complexities of the operational context,” Land explained. “Contextualization has to be used to balance this duty-based approach.” The goal is “trying to limit, trying to predict, trying to rectify ‘unintended consequences,’” under the principle of ‘do no harm.’ Oftentimes contextualization is “forced onto projects rather than designed into them,” continued Land. This structural defect in the planning process becomes problematic, especially for the humanitarian first pressured to apply given standards and then thrown into environments in which such standards no longer prove feasible.

Critics of the strictly deontological approach suggest a method containing “professional value judgements and acceptance of the responsibility for” the outcomes—interpreting the standards on a situation-by-situation basis. These “can be written into a deontological account of the framework—manuals, guidelines, checklists—but it’s essentially a consequentialist philosophy,” Land concluded. This method, though difficult to quantify and inclusive of many variables, nevertheless, presents a more flexible guideline to acting in those “imperfect” environments of humanitarian action. “‘Accountability’ is nice for a bureaucrat,” Land noted: “ I know what I have to do; I’ve ticked all the boxesthat’s job done.” But the reality on the ground calls for flexibility; it calls for the capacity to adapt to local complexities, complications that global frameworks are often incapable of foreseeing.

The Individual

The basic structure dictating the standards and responsibilities of the individual is his or her organization’s Code of Conduct. “Almost all of the Code of Conduct stems from the unequal power relationship with the beneficiary,” Land explained. Understanding this inequality and appropriately adjusting one’s attitude becomes paramount in maintaining professionalism and impartiality. “It’s very hard in the Code of Conduct to legislate attitude,” noted Land, and yet this is precisely what the humanitarian must achieve. “If you think they’re all crooks, you’ll treat them all as crooks; if you think they’re all deserving people, you’ll treat them all as deserving people,” Land put bluntly.

Frustration, group closure, and the development of negative views and stereotypes are all factors that serve to “reduce our discipline in unequal power relationships.” One’s ability to maintain this discipline dictates the nature of one’s actions. “How we behave then in an unequal power relationship—recognizing all these risks—defines whether our conduct is ethical or unethical,” the professor concluded.

Dilemmas faced at the level of the individual appear the most clear cut—given that individuals adhere to a strict set of rules to which they are legally bound through their signature—and yet such scenarios often prove the most ambiguous due to variables difficult to address through the Code of Conduct alone. The dilemmas faced at this local level of decision-making challenge the consistency and applicability of ethical frameworks forged atop the “cascade.”

Despite the outlines of academic ethics—the deontological or consequentialist systems of thought—the humanitarian on the ground is often forced him or herself to play the role of the moral cartographer and trek forward without clear guidance from such broadly-constructed academic maps. It is here, on the ground, where the moral quandaries of humanitarian action unapologetically reveal themselves and illuminate the difficulties of translating theory into practice.

And perhaps the best way to understand such ethical complexity is not through the analysis of systems at all, but rather—as the humanitarian—through these very individual cases. To culminate the lecture, Land gave the students precisely this task. One such example incited much discussion among the students, and it is here, within this challenging dilemma, that the lecture concluded:

As a nurse working with an NGO in a small, remote region you are approached by a young pregnant woman (possibly due to rape). A member of a deeply conservative society, the woman fears for her life should the birth take place, but is unable—due to local laws—to abort the pregnancy. She asks you for a salary advance so she can go into the city for the procedure. Such illegal operations are incredibly dangerous due to the lack of sanitary conditions and proper medical equipment. You know a doctor in the town who you have worked with before and who operates under relatively sterile conditions. He is willing to perform the operation, but only on the condition that you also aid in two separate procedures—procedures that your agency has been working to convince the population to abandon: a relatively severe form of female genital mutilation.

What will you do?


Lecture given by Anthony Land, Ph.D., IIHA Senior Fellow, to the IDHA 45 class at Fordham University, New York, June 2015

Brief written by Joshua Paul St. Clair, IIHA Summer 2015 Intern

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