Ethics & International Affairs Volume 21.3 (Fall 2007): Book Reviews: Ethics in Action: The Ethical Challenges of International Human Rights Nongovernmental Organizations [Full Text]

Sep 26, 2007

Jennifer Rubenstein(reviewer)

Between 2002 and 2005, the United Nations University and the City University of Hong Kong organized a series of "dialogues" about the ethical challenges facing international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs). Participants included "high-level representatives of INGOs" and "academic theorists" who study human rights (p. ix). The result is this fascinating and timely volume, which addresses not only human rights narrowly construed, but also humanitarian aid and development. While the volume would probably have been stronger had it included essays written from the perspective of Southern NGOs, it is likely to be of great interest to both aid practitioners and academics who study international ethics and politics. The volume will be especially relevant to people interested in Asia, because most of the case studies focus on that region.

The main body of the book is organized into three sections, each of which addresses a theme that generated significant debate among the dialogue participants. Section I discusses challenges that arise due to power inequalities between Northern INGOs and "Southern aid recipients." (The latter category includes both Southern NGOs funded by Northern INGOs and individuals who receive aid from Northern INGOs.) Section II, which focuses heavily on China, examines issues that arise when states restrict INGOs’ activities. Section III reengages the long-standing debate about the relative importance of civil and political rights versus social, economic, and cultural rights.

I imagine that many readers of Ethics & International Affairs will be excited about a volume that brings theory and practice together so explicitly. But what, exactly, is such an engagement supposed to accomplish? In his excellent introduction, Daniel Bell reports that the practitioners who participated in the dialogues were "compelled to articulate the moral principles underpinning their work," while the theorists were "compelled to think more explicitly about how their ideas might operate in the real world" (p. 22). Several chapters clearly reflect the practitioners' efforts along these lines: Steven Weir of Habitat for Humanity, for example, draws on the work of another contributor, the philosopher Thomas Pogge, to identify and evaluate the principles that guide Habitat's allocation of housing. The chapters by academics, however, address the "real world" in a wider range of ways than Bell's description suggests. (This might be because many of the "academic" contributors have considerable practical human rights experience themselves.) For example, Bonny Ibhawoh's excellent chapter does not offer normative principles tempered by attention to on-the-ground complexities; rather, it surveys challenges to the legitimacy of Northern INGOs.

Thomas Pogge's essay is the only chapter in the book in which a theorist straightforwardly endeavors to develop a normative theory meant to accommodate on-the-ground complexities. Pogge's is the most striking and original chapter in the volume—though not because it does a particularly good job of capturing the details of INGO practice. Pogge argues that in setting their moral priorities, INGOs ought to avoid as much serious harm as possible. Doing this, he suggests, might well entail concentrating aid in a small number of stable countries. I doubt that either the normative or empirical component of this argument is entirely correct, but its great strength is that it reveals a deep normative disagreement between Pogge and most other participants in the dialogues (including the practitioners). The question that this disagreement raises is not only whether Pogge’s proposal is practicable, or even—as Joseph Carens discusses in his response to Pogge—whether INGOs are morally obliged to do as much good as possible. It also raises the question of whether INGOs that want to utilize their resources in the best possible way should implement Pogge's proposal—or, alternatively, whether Pogge's account misses something normatively important. Pogge's chapter thus helps to stage an encounter not only between theory and practice, but also between two sources of normative insight: analytic philosophy and the experiences of aid workers.

Numerous chapters in sections I and II of the volume make one or more of three types of claims: (1) A previously overlooked moral or tactical conflict—for example, between engaging with and confronting rights-violating regimes, such as China-is more salient than has been recognized; (2) INGOs should consistently come down on a particular side of a given conflict—for example, on the side of portraying aid recipients respectfully in fund-raising materials, as opposed to using degrading images to raise as much money as possible in the short term; and (3) a given well-known moral conflict—for example, between respecting universal rights and respecting local cultural practices-is not as stark as it is often said to be, either because a middle ground is possible or because the conflict dissipates in the long run.

The volume hints at several additional questions about the ethical conflicts facing INGOs that it does not fully explore. (This is not a criticism, but rather a reflection of the richness of the book’s subject matter.) For instance, in addition to showing that particular moral conflicts exist, several chapters gesture toward broader explanations of why they exist—that is, explanations of how specific institutional, structural, and/or political factors force INGOs to choose between A and B, rather than between C and D. (One factor tends to be time constraints imposed by donors.) Likewise, several chapters gesture toward the implications-for INGOs, Southern NGOs, aid recipients, and donors-of the fact that INGOs regularly face moral conflicts. In particular, what skills must INGOs have to manage moral conflict successfully? What responsibilities (for example, of transparency or due diligence) do these conflicts generate?

Section III offers a useful overview of the long-running debate about the relative importance of civil and political rights as compared to economic, social, and cultural rights. Well-written essays by Kenneth Roth (of Human Rights Watch) and Curt Goering (of Amnesty International) offer contrasting—though not diametrically opposed-views. Roth argues that Human Rights Watch must emphasize civil and political rights because its "name and shame" methodology is useless against some violations of economic, social, and cultural rights. Goering argues that Amnesty can and should put equal weight on both kinds of rights. Section III also includes Pogge's chapter, mentioned above.

While Carens's response to Pogge and Pogge's rejoinder to Carens are high points of the volume, the other explicit "exchange" in the book, between Roth and the philosopher Neera Chandhoke, is frustrating because the authors appear to be talking past one another. Such miscommunications can be edifying, insofar as they reveal the different assumptions, categories, and levels of abstraction associated with more theoretical versus more practical modes of reasoning. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that several of the most illuminating debates in the volume are not between academics and practitioners, but rather between academics (for example, Pogge and Carens) grappling with what they have learned from practitioners or between practitioners (for example, Roth and Goering) grappling with-among other things-what they have learned from academics. In this respect, the volume suggests that the labor of translation should not be underestimated—but also that it is well worth doing.

—Jennifer Rubenstein, Princeton University

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