Keynote Address - Imperial College Development Conference, 23 February 2013 (script)

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Keynote Address - Imperial College Development Conference, 23 February 2013 (script)
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  “Ethical Development”? Being aware of our assumptions (Keynote address given at International Development Conference, Imperial College, London, 23 February 2013) Calum T.M. Nicholson nicholson.cal@gmail.com Introduction Development is a popular topic these days, as the turnout at this conference today shows. It is also an idea and activity that is widely understood as having a strong material and technical component; some would go so far as to say the whole notion of development is meaningless if stripped of its scientific and technical aspects. Yet it is well known that development agendas, interventions and projects have a  patchy track-record, often falling short of not only their own standards of success, but sometimes of ethics as well. Indeed, in 2007 the World Bank estimated that 50% of its development projects could be seen as ‘failures’. So today I’ve been asked to talk about how science and technology can be mobilised for ‘ethical development‘.In light of this, the central idea that I want to communicate is that we shouldn’t think of science and technology as a solution  to development problems, but as a tool  . And like any tool, it is one whose effects are dependent upon the user - for better or worse. As a consequence, it’s simply not enough to know about engineering, or science and technology in isolation. What’s crucial  is to understand the ethical pitfalls that  potentially accompany many  development projects and agendas. So what I’d like to argue is that when we’re trying to use science, engineering and technology to further development ends, it is crucial to lay a critical eye on our unexamined assumptions. I shall argue that these assumptions  really come in three forms: First, assumptions about the local political context  in which an intervention is taking  place; 1  Second, assumptions about what we can even say about the nature of the problems  we’re trying to address; and third, assumptions about what we’re trying to achieve  in solving these problems - what we have in mind as an outcome  – not just our goals, but our ideals .In making explicit  some of the things that are often held implicit , hopefully you’ll be able to go away, and maintain - and act upon - your interest in doing engineering  projects, or bringing science to bear on problems, but with a useful awareness of the circumstantial  and contextual  factors that can sometimes render the most well-meant intervention either meaningless, or in some unfortunate cases, actually counter-productive. I say counter-productive advisably. We need to remember, historically, that science and technology has proved to be a double edged sword. While they are often framed as solutions - even panaceas - to problems, the record is much more ambivalent. While science has of course solved plenty of problems, particularly with regard to humanity’s relationship with nature and our environment - be it defeating disease, or maximising agricultural yield, or overcoming natural barriers to trade and communication - it has also supersized some of the problems of our own making, and sometimes created wholly new problems. The death toll of the First World War was largely down to the invention of automatic weapons; advances in nuclear science put the power of mass destruction in the hands of a tiny number of men; industrialisation in general is correlated with significant climate change which threatens to set back many of the advances that industrialism has wrought. If development reflects an interest in the well-being of humanity then, ethically speaking, it surely matters little whether the problems of human well-being are rooted in nature, or in our attempts to overcome nature. 2  I should be clear that I’m by no means suggesting that science and technology can do nothing to further human welfare. That would be an absurd argument. I’m simply saying that we need be aware of the ever-present risk of unintended consequences when we leap into actions that, although well-meant, can nevertheless be founded on naive, simplistic, or unwittingly prejudiced assumptions. Having this awareness is surely crucial to undertaking any development that could be termed ‘ethical’,  particularly when putting to use science, engineering and technology. Background I first need to give some background to the whole notion of development - the development of ‘development’ - to indicate that this is not a self-evident concern, or an activity that has been immaculately conceived, but rather a concern that has  particular historical and philosophical roots, and an activity that has gained currency in a particular political context. It is this background, and these political currents, that lead us to be sitting here today, at this conference. First of all, it’s worth noting that while the progressive idea that action should be taken to improve society did not begin with the modern  concern with ‘development’, neither is this idea a natural or inevitable one. So, let me give some context to the idea of progress. This is a term that first emerged in the fifteenth century, and holds that we live in a flawed present, and that we should aspire to make a better future. Since the enlightenment, this has been a central tenet in many western philosophies of how society and government should be organised. While the term ‘progress’ itself is only a few centuries old, the underlying principle of continually striving for improvement is an idea with deep roots in western  philosophy. Some have argued that ‘progress’ is simply a secular expression of Christian theology, which holds as central the notion that we’re born into imperfection - sin - and that the goal is to find some salvation and redemption in our works in life. However, most scholars agree that the basic idea implicit in the idea of 3   progress - that change  is the central dynamic of social life - can be traced to some of the later pre-socratic philosophers of Ancient Greece. Despite this rich and deep history, you just have to look to the notable alternatives in the historical and cultural record to see that ‘progress’ is neither an inevitable social dynamic, nor  a natural value or self-evident political imperative. Many cultures,  particularly those often construed as ‘traditional’ or ‘primitive’, actually have a cyclical view of time and society, rather than a linear one, as we do. Some historically influential philosophies, such as Confucianism, which was dominant across large swathes of east asia for centuries, emphasised harmony over anything that could be equated with our idea of progress; And even in our own European tradition, the very earliest pre-socratic philosophers saw the central dynamic - the natural order of things - not as change, but as stasis. In fact, Hesiod, the first Greek philosopher to later emphasis change over stasis in human affairs, actually saw ‘change’ not as inevitably progressive , but as inevitably degenerative , both physically and morally - a view that was itself influenced by even earlier philosophies emanating from east of the mediterranean. It is also important to realise that, as a general rule, many forms of political power have tended to find change  inherently threatening to the established order and status quo - take Imperial China as an obvious, but not isolated, example. In this light, the current and pervasive view of ‘progress’ as an inherent good, and an inevitable, inexorable social dynamic, is in fact an exception to the historical and cultural rule. All this raises the question: why is the idea of progress now so pervasive? Here we have to look to the recent history: the brute facts of colonialism, not to mention the industrial revolution, were what provided the impetus for this peculiarly European notion ‘going global’. When the pith-helmeted Europeans withdrew from their colonies, they left behind a set of political-economic structures that are now ubiquitous, and that collectively now constitute the international state-system. Within this system, States now almost universally hold economic progress as not just a 4  value, but an imperative. ‘Progress’ has therefore been normalised as a worldwide  political and public aspiration, and, as a result, its cultural and historical contingency is often forgotten. The point of all this is that ‘progress’, as we understand it today, is dependent upon a  particular context, history, and philosophical bearing. And it is this heritage that inspires, informs and infuses our contemporary notion of ‘development’. But what is specifically new about ‘development’? In brief, it is that it is linked to, or equated with, modernization: the transformation of ‘traditional’ societies into modern ones, characterised by advanced technology, material   prosperity and political stability, usually through state  and/or market   means. While the notion of ‘progressive development’, understood as the equating of the moral with the material advance of society, first emerged under the Victorians in the mid 19th century, it was only by the late 1940s that ‘development’ began to be understood in terms of a policy, rather than just a political or social philosophy. And it is only at this time that ‘development’ began to be articulated in binary with the notion of ‘underdevelopment’, later to be complemented with the essentially similar  binaries, ‘1st/3rd world‘ and ‘north/south’. The watershed for this new policy-use of the term is often seen to be a 1949 speech  by US President Truman, in which he said the following: ‘The United States is pre-eminent among nations in the development of industrial and scientific techniques. We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. Our aim should be to help the free peoples of the world, through their own efforts, to produce more food, more clothing, more materials for housing, and more mechanical power to lighten their burdens.’ 5
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