Ethical Encounters – Parsing the Pluriverse: empathy and deliberation in a post-MDG ethics of international development

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Our fifth post in the forum is a guest post from Diego de Merich. Diego got his PhD from LSE and is now an LSE 100 Fellow and a research associate at the Institute for Intersectionality Research and Policy at Simon Fraser University. His work focuses on human empathy and the ethics of care in service of alternative frameworks for International Development (post-Millennium Development Goals). For earlier posts in the forum do look for Myriam’s here, Joe’s here, Elke’s here and Jillian’s here. Kim’s discussion post can be found here.


With the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set to expire in 2015, focus has turned to a new framework which might replace them. Heavily influenced by the Human Capabilities Approach (HCA), the MDGs and the recently-proposed ‘Golden Thread’ frameworks posit a relatively monolithic, liberal understanding of what ‘development’ is meant to signify. As such, each new iteration of an international agreement on development seems destined to miss the potential for more creative and context-appropriate political action in response to the shortcomings of the approaches which preceded them. Using as a starting point Arturo Escobar’s Encountering Development, I suggest that his notion of the pluriverse – which stands in opposition to the ‘universal and homolingual thrust of modernity’ – both challenges the post-2015 discourse and implies the need for different ethical practices upon which ‘development’ might instead be re-cast. Realisation of the pluriverse and notions of care, responsibility, democracy and pluralism would require that closer attention be paid to narrative voice and to the role that empathic processes should play in the deliberation surrounding development.

The ‘promise’ of empathy in pursuit of a post-MDG development practice can be understood by contrasting two approaches to deliberative democracy – one which would hold the HCA as its guiding ethical impulse and one which suggests that an ethics of care and responsibility in international development requires a better appreciation for the role that empathy and narrative play in understanding the development possibilities and realities of the constituent elements of Escobar’s pluriverse. Here, the focus of ethical enquiry is shifted from a more abstract notion of social justice to a recognition of shared/lived vulnerability, alternatively-imagined ways of being and thus, to an ‘international development’ which is differently understood and practiced.

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A Crisis of Immediacy

I wonder if other writers feel as though they are throwing words by the hopeful fistful into a void, into the place where an audience might be. This hoped-for-reader is on my mind because I feel I should apologise for having taken so long to think these thoughts and align them so that I can throw them into that void.

There is no reason for apologies, however, because my hoped-for-reader doesn’t know that my current thoughts are inspired by a planned but only partly written series of posts from two-and-a-half years ago. Yet I feel I am writing an overdue assignment on the last day of class.

My thoughts are not timely. I worry this means they are no good. This is a strange feeling, to worry not that the words that carry our thoughts are inadequate but rather that they have gestated too long, such that tossing them into the void ceases to be a hopeful act of communication and becomes rather like dropping a crumpled page into the nearest bin.

Artwork from wraphome.org

Artwork from wraphome.org

Those many months past I wanted to write more about the economic crisis, about the disaster in the making that was “austerity”. In particular I wanted to consider what virtues might help us to navigate what seemed an all-encompassing crisis. But the moment has passed, surely. Right? There’s talk now of recovery even in Britain and signs of changing attitudes in Europe. Continue reading

Washington, DC: a human rights city?

Below are some initial reflections on the work I’ve been doing in Washington DC on the human right to housing. They are not terribly substantive and serve as much as a tribute and thank you to those who hosted me as disquisition on the topic. But I wanted to post the piece for those who might be interested in my broader project, or what’s going on in Washington DC. Enjoy.

In December 2008 Washington DC was declared a human rights city. The DC City Council passed the resolution, pushed for by the American Friends Service Committee. While this is a lovely idea, it leaves one wondering what does it mean to be a human rights city. In particular, what does it mean in a city defined by inequality, where more than 15,000 citizens do not have homes, where 20% of the population lives in poverty, where housing is more unaffordable than anywhere in the United States, and where public and affordable housing is under constant threat. Perhaps the declaration of DC as a human rights city would seem less cynical if the DC City Council or the Federal Government had shown themselves committed to protecting the human rights of residents of the District, particularly the right to housing.

Housing is a Human Right

Human rights promise us many things. The right to housing, however, is perhaps the most fundamental. What do our rights mean if we do not have a place to call home? Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promises that

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

The right to housing is fundamental because it is in our homes that we find the space to rest, to pursue wellness, to find love, to raise families, and build communities, to collect our energy and thoughts so that we can participate in democratic politics, and it is where we find the safety, security and privacy that make a dignified life possible. Continue reading

Rushed thoughts on political theory…

I am not sure I have proper post here, but I am pursuing some thoughts and it seems they might benefit from publicity. In the midst of “fieldwork” – a word I hate… Let’s scratch that – in the midst of a learning experience, in which I have been granted the opportunity to share in the struggle of some very brave people in Washington DC’s Shaw neighbourhood, I have stumbled over what seems a vital point about political theory. So vital in fact that it seems obvious now.

I spent yesterday in the Shaw neighbourhood of DC. Shaw is a historically black area, with a cultural and intellectual history that rivals Harlem or Bronzeville (in Chicago). It is also a neighbourhood in the midst of “gentrification”… wait, that’s the wrong word too. It is a neighbourhood in the midst of a campaign of displacement, moving long terms residents (mostly poor and Black – though also Latino and Asian) out of their homes and community. These people are being displaced to make way for “development” and “urban renewal” – which is a polite way of saying they are being moved for profit, because the investors and the city of Washington DC have found a way to make money off their homes and community.

Walking around the area you can see the transformation in process, as the old and new visions of the area meet like ocean currents. I sat in a park and while a young white woman jogged with her dog, a young and destitute black man watching from a nearby bench complained to himself that her dog needed to run free, not be stuck on a leash, and that the woman should have stayed in the suburbs rather than moving into his neighbourhood. And in Shaw, the writing is literally on the wall, as I walk past a former public housing complex that is now being advertised as a luxury apartment complex by a new owner keen to move out the current residence, renovate the building and move in new more profitable tenants.

I was fortunate to meet a group of local long time residents, mostly black women, who are trying to protect their homes and their place in the Shaw community. I won’t provide details here, but I will say that these people are incredibly brave and they face an absolutely monumental task. To oppose their own displacement requires them to fight against powerful adversaries using a system and a set of rules that is balanced against them. And this is where I started thinking about political theory… Continue reading