Discerning December, Part II: The Ethics of Engagement

From my previous post, we were left with concerns and implications from questions raised in a recent office meeting:  How far can we actually go in community involvement?  How active can we be in guiding local voices on what development or progress mean to them?  What are the ethics of encouraging or incorporating the monastic community to drive ecological conservation efforts designed by an external, staunchly secular environmental organization?  During that meeting, we kept focused on others matters, but these questions, doubts, confusions, stayed with me. 

So, what has time offered in answer to these dilemmas?


After the meeting that day, my mind slowly began to absorb everything I noted and finally reached for an introduction line from Aet Annist’s chapter on Estonia in Aid Effect:  “Developmental cultures evolve through a complicated set of interests and agendas as well as the concerns of various stakeholders.” [1]  Straightforward yet unhelpful to clarify the ethical dilemmas at hand; instructive, however, for keeping me focused on the multiple stakeholders and numerous narratives involved.  Earlier in that book, Rosalind Eyben concisely phrases my question about development’s definition and narrows the current channel of thought:  “Whose aid? Through multiple encounters and struggles over roles and responsibilities, staff working for donor and recipient governments constantly reformulate and reinterpret their answers to this question.” [2]  Granted, Eyben’s context is quite different from ours — she was operating within a Bolivian aid scheme centered on monetary engagement — however, we both share the responsibility of delivering some resource to a community and investing our energies and expectations to the utilization of and capacity expansion with that resource.  What we run into, though, is a diversion of distinctions about aid (Development, service, any social good initiative).  Is it a gift (the position usually held by charities)?  Is it an investment (the position held by donor governments, most NGOs, or individuals working for social justice)?  Is its delivery merely a question of efficiency (the angle that would reflect positions like those held by the World Bank)?  Annist wrote truly, quite the “complicated set of interests and agendas.”

Fortunately, lunch time came and I was able to distract the tragically spiraling issues clouding my direction and excitement for the other progress we had made in the meeting.  In our warmth-seeking, huddled circle sharing lunch by the still steaming pots of rice and vegetables, the simple intimacy and humaneness of the moment settled me.  If there’s anything I learned from an MA in religious studies and two years of trying to get hold of how to talk about, think about, write about, live with religions in South Asia, it came from off-handed conversations with Steve Collins about the sometimes silliness, sometimes usefulness, and ever-present entertainment in the Jataka Tales — we don’t always have to go deeper than just listening.  At the end of the day, any day, we are just people.  Whether, we’re Tibetan Buddhist monks locked away in retreat in the caves of Saspol,  Shi’a Muslim Clerics instructing social good programs in Kargil, globally public figures like the Dalai Lama or any denominational spiritual leader touring the globe, or just a researcher trying to understand the intersections of religious convictions and scientific injunctions, we share basic needs and inclinations as human individuals and as a society.  In this case, we all share the concerns of an eco-crisis and finite resources.   

Looking down onto Saspol village from one of few accessible retreat caves carved into the hillside. December, 2017.

So, while I definitely have no real answers to the deeper existential, epistemological, or ethical problems of the paradigms within which I’m working, I at least have a human-centric path that I can defend for now, albeit rather opportunistic and efficiency-seeking.  What I see for our path forward pertains to not only aligning vocabularies between Religion and Development and Ecology, but also to enhance faith literacy of my organization plus the ecology and development literacy within the local religious communities.  In this way we can better understand our respective frames of reality, value systems,  and missions, and evolve into a partnership mitigating one another’s blind spots and attitude barriers.  Beginning with this, the behavioral change component of community engagement, I believe we will be in motion to design an effectiveness agenda in which all stakeholders will transparently understand their roles and responsibilities.  Such an agenda and clarity among actors could begin to pacify my qualms of ethics, as well as instantiate monitoring and evaluation mechanisms that not only measure successes but also coordination levels between stakeholders, helping to address fragmentation and continually build partner relations.  With such systems, we can set a precedent in Ladakh for outlining commitments which harmonize approaches between local communities and NGOs.

Alongside our world views, we all live from the land and the land (ideally) regenerates from itself.  Given the ecological pressures that have been created in our lifetimes and before, it is incumbent on us to be informed and active in the ongoing call for conservation and environmental concern.  I still believe, as I’ve written before, that we are at the front of this effort in Ladakh, but that doesn’t give us any excuse or real grace for being overly engrossed in the innumerable objections or questions that can arise in our engagements.  As long as our interlocutors are agreeable, interested, and aware (and the Dalai Lama continues to speak on the importance and responsibility for environmentalism), then I have no issues moving forward and adapting our education programs for the monastic community.  For now, at least, I’ll leave these other ethical concerns to the scholars of development studies and look forward to joining their dialogues another day. [3] 


julley ~ drew


[1] Annist, Aet. “The Worshippers Of Rules? Defining Right And Wrong In Local Participatory Project Applications In South-Eastern Estonia.”  In The Aid Effect: Giving and Governing in International Development, David Mosse and David Lewis, eds. London:  Pluto Press, 2005.

[2] Eyben, Rosalind and Rosario León. “Whose Aid? The Case Of The Bolivian Elections Project.” In The Aid Effect: Giving and Governing in International Development, David Mosse and David Lewis, eds. London:  Pluto Press, 2005.

[3] For a narrative on questions similar to these and a general overview of how Faith Based Institutions and global development agencies really began mutually organizing, please see Katherine Marshall (2001), “Development and Religion A Different Lens on Development Debates,”  available online here:  <http://siteresources.worldbank.org/DEVDIALOGUE/Resources/PeobodyArticle4a.pdf>.  Though this article is centered on one particular entity seeking to harness the harmonies between Religion and Development, K. Marshall’s writing is always insightful and directional for thinking on the challenges of development work, generally, and the necessary dialogues between religious actors and development players in the global game of creating a more equitable society.  I recommend any of her publications or those available from The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, where she directs many programs centered on Development.   

Andrew is excited to join the Snow Leopard Conservancy - India Trust to work with the education program for monks and nuns as an AIF Clinton Fellow. He is a firm believer in the human ability and duty to serve our neighbors far and near. What is important to him is to always be engaged with people and collaboratively work for cooperation, empowerment, and sustainability. He has helped build houses in Trinidad and Tobago as well as Sri Lanka; researched nonlinear optics in France; taught tennis, 5th grade, and high school programs in the U.S.; and analyzed sanitation projects in India. He aspires to motivate these experiences into an informed and adaptive life mission of service. After spending ten months studying Urdu in Lucknow, he is grateful to continue living in India, engaging this perplexing place he calls home-away-from-home. Andrew holds a B.Sc. in Physics from Austin Peay State University, an M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago, and is always seeking to learn more.

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