Development professionals seek to improve the conditions of the people they aim to serve but can unintentionally cause harm by not taking an approach that recognizes universal human dignity, particularly in situations of constricting civic space. To address this, Counterpart’s Bangladesh team, working on the USAID-funded Promoting Advocacy and Rights project, participated in a training on ethics in development and the “do no harm” principle. Dr. Chloe Schwenke, a development ethicist and president of the Center for Values in International Development, conducted the training.
The “do no harm” principle reflects two essential considerations. First, the recognition and respect of universal human dignity as the foundation for all human rights. Second, the requirement to protect the needs and respect the aspirations of the most vulnerable and marginalized of persons. With these two concepts as a foundation, development activities can overcome the underdevelopment that such people have long experienced.
This well-established moral principle is particularly important in Bangladesh, a country with a very large population and limited resources. Bangladesh has experienced harms from development projects in the past. For example, the construction of large dams and infrastructure projects displaced people from their homes and land with little thought about what the displaced persons would do. Similarly, the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has caused environmental degradation and health problems for many farmers and their families. Developers could have avoided these negative outcomes with more analysis and forward thinking.
When The Space For Civic Engagement Shrinks
The “do no harm” principle is particularly important when the space for civil society closes in a country. Constrained by overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of civil society organizations, government policies in Bangladesh have severely limited the effectiveness of such groups.
Schwenke explained that applying the “do no harm” principle begins with the acknowledgement that this is an important yet not sufficient first step. International development interventions ought to avoid unintended harms and specify well defined social goals to be achieved through the project’s implementation. Such an approach would result in clearly measurable and morally defensible benefits in terms of human wellbeing and environmental health.
There are four main challenges that can lead to unintended harm. To prevent this, development practitioners must:
- maintain their neutrality and impartiality;
- preserve their autonomy (i.e., avoiding the influence of powerful local interests who reject changing the status quo);
- ensure access to informed consent when gathering essential data (particularly in research intended to protect vulnerable, marginalized persons and groups);
- ensure that a project’s social change objectives have broad support from those most in need.
Schwenke engaged the team in an in-depth discussion of the core premise of international development: that all people are equal in their dignity, and that universal dignity demands appropriate recognition and respect in pragmatic, measurable ways. Our staff considered the moral values that characterize their work, and how to elevate the moral awareness of all stakeholders.
The ethicist commended the team on its demonstrated understanding of the concepts of universal human dignity, inclusive development, and the “do no harm” principle. She observed their efforts to honor the value and worth of all with whom they work.