We need an ethic.

How about, real good and feel good? The phrase is obviously trying to place priorities on philanthropic actions, and so the most accurate title for what fisher and star are writing might be “Real good should make you feel good.” I think that this is a great guideline sheet for someone looking to invest money in a project, but, as I noted last week, I hope capital only develops into a tool at our disposal. So then, a couple of points close to and farther from this idea:

First, I’m not sure if we need to be studying “high-impact philanthropy” as they describe it. We’re definitely not solving a global problem, we’re solving a local one. Whether we do that well or not might fit in with “high impact” but I’m not really sure. Can you be high impact when you only help one person? I hope so, but i don’t think that’s what fisher and starr are getting at. Further, I would also like to think that we’re not doing this for philanthropic reasons. That we operate within SHH might take away from this second point, but one of the greatest risks of philanthropy is maintaining a hierarchical position with those that you are “trying to help.”
Even if we are practicing philanthropy, we’re also practicing self interest. We need to recognize where our self interest (not just making money for LC, but what we think is fun, interesting or useful, because these projects often become conflated with our identity) is contrary to the people who we’re working with. Remember, none of us were ever asked by our clients to enter into their lives. That started way before we arrived with Shin. We’re not him.

I like that they call for clearly articulated impacts. A mission statement, or a prioritized list of goals, at least, is a must. We need this yesterday. Their first sentences of their two guidelines on measuring impacts are great. After this I have a problem. Let’s stick with specificity and causality, and subtract their push for size.

Their second goal, cost effectiveness seems to be captured by the causality point above. For my money (or more importantly my time), if we require one student for one client, then so be it. This is not efficient, and I’m okay with that. I don’t think that efficiency should be one of our aims until we can clearly articulate a specific task. Even then, we should be careful that efficiency doesn’t override original intent.

Similarly, sustainability is a great idea, but what if, the empirics of our situation dictate that when we leave, the relationship is over. If our liberation is tied up with that of our clients, can we ever leave? I don’t know the answer to this question, and I  think the answer is yes, but it seems a prerequisite to questioning what happens when we do leave. The amount of guilt that I felt at coming back home last year really drove home this point for me:  we had not left a sustainable system of savings or loan education, and so I think a large part of me knew I needed to keep working with our clients.

Datar and crew are in line with where I see my LC mission, though their conclusions still seem to be putting the cart ahead of the horse in similar ways to Fisher et. al. The kinds of services reviewed and confirmed as being “client centered” are those that I would both enjoy giving and see as helpful to participants of an MFI. That’s probably why I’m working on the BPC, and further, why we should think of it as a BPC in name only. I don’t think the most important piece of this work is the competition, it’s the education that allows participants to compete.

This reminds me of last year’s trip and a great, albeit vague metric for evaluating what we do: All hard work receives payment. The idea, explained to us by the president of an agricultural development institution, is that all of our activities should have some worth in and of themselves. Have fun.

Still, this is potentially problematic in that it doesn’t order our priorities, so more needs to be done in this respect. I think that La Ceiba, while a microfinance institution should try to articulate its goals either with a very broad view of what it means to be poor, or use a narrower definition of poverty and clearly recognize that we are simply using poverty reduction as a tool toward a greater end of applying an ethic we think is valuable. From Gunnar Myrdal, writing on objectivity in social science in 1968:

“Even if the influences conditioning research had already been exposed, so
that the social scientist was more sophisticated about himself and his attitudes in
searching for truth, there would still remain a problem of the philosophy of social
science: are there logical means by which he can better assure objectivity in his
research? This is the problem I shall lead up to in this essay.
We shall find, the logical means available for protecting ourselves from biases
are broadly these: to raise the valuations actually determining our theoretical as
well as our practical research to full awareness, to scrutinize them from the point of
view of relevance, significance, and feasibility in the society under study, to
transform them into specific value premises for research, and to determine
approach and define concepts in terms of a set of value premises which have
been explicitly stated”

Here’s a link to a sweet article on ethics in development work that includes this gem and others:


One Response to “We need an ethic.

  • All hard work receives payment. The lesson to be learned from Victor was as much for our benefit, as for that of our clients. I really think that the most important thing we can do for our clients is to take a step back, ask and listen.

    It’s the only way that we can negotiate a way forward that reconciles a client centered approach with a ‘real good’ attitude.

    We have an ethic, we need a mandate.

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