DSA2017: Sustainability Interrogated: Societies, Growth, and Social Justice
Development aid is intrinsically morally complex, giving rise not only to debates on the ethics and politics of aid but to individual psychological experiences of cognitive dissonance. At a time of mounting pressure on the sector, this panel explores these issues in inter-disciplinary perspective.
Development workers frequently face very difficult ethical dilemmas, particularly when they work for agencies that provide support to authoritarian regimes with poor records on human rights, or in complex humanitarian situations. The additional strain caused by the 'results' and 'value for money' agendas only compounds this. Amid heightening public pressure on the international development sector, the very sustainability of the aid project is under threat as forces both within and outside the sector seek to reduce ethically complex situations to simple and measurable cost-benefit calculations.
In this context, despite mounting debate on the ethics and politics of aid, little is known about the individual and psychological dimensions of development workers' engagement with these issues. The experience of intense 'cognitive dissonance' (Festinger 1957) is especially likely to be a regular feature of work in places where strong narratives of improvement and developmental progress coexist with regular evidence of human rights abuses, repression and social exclusion. Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation in which a person holds two beliefs simultaneously that seem to conflict with one another, leading to mental stress which they seek consciously or unconsciously to resolve. The emphasis on producing measurable results, even as development assistance is increasingly targeted towards regions with severe institutional dysfunctions and data deficits, generates further moral and cognitive dissonances. The aim of this panel is to situate psychological and emotional processes alongside broader moral and political dilemmas of development assistance in difficult contexts, to explore these issues in a holistic and interdisciplinary way.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.
Amoral certainty? Ethical and psychological dissonance in the era of aid precision
We live in an era of aid precision: results, indicators, risk assessments, and value-for-money calculation. This paper explores the linked cognitive and ethical dissonance that results from mixing quantitative compliance and transformational goals in highly uncertain reform environments.
We live in an era of aid precision. The fiscal crisis of the ealry 21st century ushered in an opportunistic wave of conservative aid hawks who built a development counter-bureaucracy aimed not at improving aid effectiveness, but at reigning in the discretion and autonomy of aid professionals. Interventions are now designed and evaluated on the basis of rigorous results frameworks, risk assessments, baseline indicators, and value-for-money calculations.
But the precision that aid must comply with these days is often a very spurious one. Aid practitioners face the paradox that the most transformational interventions are often the least quantifiable ones. This is coupled with a gradual shift of foreign aid towards the weakest institutional contexts, which are subject to the greatest uncertainty. Thus emerges the cognitive and ethical dissonance of trying to do uncertain good while needing to comply with narrowly precise reporting requirements. The only way to continue to do good is to report success, but sometimes success is easiest to achieve in the interventions that do the least good.
This paper provides a theoretical interpretation of the ethical and cognitive dissonance involved in this new era of aid, building on the work of moral philosophers like Frances Kamm and psychologists like Daniel Kahneman. It then explores the practical implications of dissonance through the case of a DFID-funded anti-corruption intervention in Ghana.
Expert ignorance: the politics of ignorance in legal and institutional reform
A cadre of development professionals - legal and institutional reformers - publicly deny that development experts know what they are doing. I argue that their political power resides in allowing for a form of professional transference, allowing other development experts to purge their dissonances.
An emerging body of literature explores how development experts' own cynicism or disenchantment with their expertise might in fact sustain or constitute that expertise. For authors such as David Kennedy and Severine Autesserre, the function of expertise is not to produce authority; it is to produce a private domain in which experts can contain their disenchantment, allowing for purer expressions of public authority. By contrast, I argue that contemporary development expertise has scaled up this insight, creating a cadre of professionals - legal and institutional reformers - whose public role it is to deny that development experts know what they are doing. Using the language of context, politics, and social complexity, they deny the conditions of possibility for governing development knowledge, using what I call "expert ignorance". In this paper, I explore the functional role of this professional cadre. Drawing on nine years' experience as a legal and institutional reformer, I detail the form and structure of expert ignorance, and its specific relationship with other development experts. I argue that its political power resides in allowing for a form of professional transference: development experts with claims to scientific knowledge, such as development economists, can purify their position by depositing their anxieties and dissonances - in the face of the limits of their knowledge - with ignorant experts.
Sustainability myths and development dissonance: identities of the ethical practitioner in carbon offset markets.
Carbon offsetting is morally controversial and its implications for climate change and development are disputed. Based on interviews with carbon offsetting practitioners, this paper situates development professionals' experiences and identities in the context of a cultural political economy.
Advocates of carbon offsetting construe it as a form of development cooperation that produces low-carbon, sustainable progress in low and middle income countries. In contrast, critics highlight the tensions of a profit-oriented offset market that creates socio-ecological problems and reinforces unsustainable development.
Economic and technical constraints mean that it is difficult in practice to offset with meaningful benefits for the climate and for communities living near to projects. Professionals are constrained to follow least-cost options and encouraged to manipulate data in ways that undermine the environmental and developmental rationales for offsets. Rather, technical loopholes enable powerful actors to game the market, creating public socio-environmental harm for the sake of private economic gain.
Nevertheless, practitioners adeptly construct moral justifications and cultural narratives to present offsetting as an ethical activity, despite the evidence to the contrary, producing a form of cognitive dissonance. Stories of socio-environmental care serve multiple functions, including: the economic marketing of offset credits to private sector buyers; the political defence of offset markets to public sector policy-makers; and the soothing of psychological challenges facing practitioners who seek to reconcile their sense of an ethical identity with their employment status.
Thus, the creation of development myths and sustainability imaginaries serves political, economic and emotional purposes. This paper explores processes of moral justification and myth-making, locating them as components of the construction of a cultural hegemony that supports neoliberal visions of (un)sustainable development.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.