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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The Post-Development Challenge

Running parallel to the human development and human capabilities discussions in the 1980s and 1990s, the post- (or anti-) development critique suggests that the very concept of ‘Development’ is a sociological construct reflective of Western and Northern hegemony over the rest of the world. Because development ‘theory’ itself responds to or clarifies pre-determined political and economic goals (e.g. modernisation, structural adjustment, debt relief), it continues to reflect and uphold those hegemonic tendencies. Post-development thinkers include Ivan Illich, Gustavo Esteva and Arturo Escobar, among others. In fact Escobar’s work can be said to have been as influential within this small field of scholars, as Amartya Sen’s work on human-centred development and ‘development as freedom’ were in the field of development economics. For Ivan Illich, a long-time critic of development discourses, the issue is not so much with the competing intents of development projects (from missionaries to Marxists, social interveners to developmentalists), but rather in the rituals of development. Even more than any particular ideological underpinning, for him it is the performance of these rituals since the 1970s, which generated ‘not just specific goals like “education” or “transportation” but a non-ethical state of mind. The chasing of projects, goals or goods serves only to reify them, converts ‘good’ into ‘value’.

The post-development response to this difficulty, can be summed up in a number of guiding principles found in Escobar’s Encountering Development (p.215). Post-development requires:

  1. an interest not in development alternatives but in alternatives to development, thus a rejection of the entire paradigm;
  2. an interest in local culture and knowledge;
  3. a critical stance towards established scientific discourse; and
  4. the defence and promotion of localised, pluralistic grassroots movements.

And while, there might not be widespread agreement, even among post-development scholars about the first point, broadly speaking all are in agreement about the other three. In his seminal work, Escobar refers to the idea of a development ‘pluriverse’ constituted in the myriad trajectories, paths and programmes for change which could exist in contrast to a universal or unitary development agenda.

This pluriverse resides within the notion of sustainability, rather than globalisation. In a more recent articulation, ‘the evolving pluriverse might be described as a process of planetarization articulated around a vision of the Earth as a living whole that is always emerging out of the manifold biophysical, human and spiritual relations of the elements that make it up’ (139). He takes heart in the notion that in response to the violence imposed by the unitary economic vision of globalisation, there are signs  that re-localisation and a new priority given to ecology and the natural environment are helping to pick away at the monolith and commercial juggernaut of neo-liberal corporatist development economics. The idea that ‘culture sits in places’ is reflective of the desire to view the world not as a (unitary moral) universe, but as a pluriverse within which many worlds (or conceptions of the good) can reside. Its construction requires the convergence of a number of critical threads of thought – philosophical, biological, indigenous narratives – which help to reconceptualise the world as a place that is ‘ceaselessly in movement, an ever-changing web of inter-relations involving humans and non-humans’ (9).

Ultimately, then, what post-development critiques have helped to highlight are the hegemonic bias of the moral and ethical underpinnings of traditional responses to development. At a meta-level, post-development would seek an ethics of development which first considers the origin of any exclusionary body of knowledge and the violences that it may inflict on local contexts. At a micro-level, it recognises the myriad constellations of connection and interconnection, human and non-human, which might sustain the imaginary of a pluriverse containing many ‘worlds’ of the good. And yet, one of the principal challenges arising from the post-development critique is that it fails to suggest the ethical framework (or more appropriately, the sets of overlapping ethical practices) which would most respect this desire to realise a ‘planetarisation’ of Escobar’s ‘pluriverse’.

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The Deliberative HCA Rejoinder

In addition to ethical questions of universalist versus particularist moral claims, the distinction between concrete and generalized moral actors must be addressed. Much of the human capabilities literature focuses on ‘agents’, where one is an agent when ‘one deliberates and decides for oneself, acts to realise one’s aims, and, thereby, makes some intentional difference in the world’ (Crocker 2008, p.298). Because Sen’s capability approach requires democracy conceived as public discussion and free/fair elections – this ‘capability’ conception of both democracy and development would be enriched with a more thorough appreciation for how it would combine with deliberative theory and practice. Given that Sen’s is a freedom-centred understanding of development in an unequal world, however, it will always occur within contexts of power inequalities and competing interests. Therefore the focus should be on a more clearly articulated understanding of ‘political freedom’, for many deliberative theorists. Consistent with an HCA approach, the expansion of deliberative fora to contexts of international development would be one, albeit difficult, political way to overcome the critiques posed by post-development scholars.

And yet in ethical terms, these particular ‘agents’ cannot be easily theorized outside of their particular socio-political and historical positions, except in the most abstract or procedural of senses. Furthermore, the literature on deliberative democracy consistently requires an understanding of deliberation which prioritises ‘reason’ over ‘expression’. In fact the central aims of much deliberative theory are in their appeal to egalitarianism and to the procedures which enable effective deliberation to occur; a focus which requires, in effect, for expression of need or goal or plan to be detached, impartial and communicated in a consistent ethical fashion (i.e. through the language of rights, duties and the like). It is easy to understand how Michael Morrell can rightly argue that ‘without empathizing citizens, deliberative democracy will likely be no more than a talkative form of aggregative democracy’ (129). So while we might be tempted to agree with Crocker or Sen, that ‘it is good for people to reason about, make conscious decisions about, and be in charge of their own actions rather than being mere pawns in a cosmic, natural, or social chess game’ (Crocker 2008, p.298), these ‘people’ and their emotions, needs, aspirations inhabit bodies and concrete social locations, situated within complex hierarchies and intersecting asymmetries of power. Or, as highlighted most succinctly by Kimberly Hutchings, ‘when the apparently egalitarian discursive ideal is operationalised in a transnational context it actually turns out to reflect a hierarchical relation in morality which maps onto, and could be used to endorse, actual hierarchies of power’ (Hutchings 2005: 162).

In fact these very human behaviours and feelings, engaged in or ideally manifest in social deliberative settings, are vital to our being able to understand how development goals might be agreed upon in future, within many overlapping realms of social and political activity. If narrative, creative wonder and listening are not emphasized at the centre of deliberative interaction, then it is difficult to imagine how new ‘rituals’ of development might be enacted, wherein empathy, expression and co-responsibility for myriad development aims within a pluriverse, might arise.

Empathy and Deliberation

There are a number of ways by which an empathic approach to international development would complement and build upon recent literature on care, responsibility, deliberation and empowerment within the fields of international relations, post-development thought and political geography. Complementarity is found in a relational understanding of the nature of the problems at hand and of the actors involved in addressing those problems. It is within those relationships, problematic both spatially and temporally, that motivation to respond and to take responsibility is ultimately located. But perhaps specifically on the question of motivation to act, a recognition of the centrality of empathy and of the processes which it could engender would add further weight to the argument laid out by care theorists. To fully separate a liberal justice argument for responsibility from an approach based on caring and relationality (i.e. designating each to either the public or private spheres), leaves the question of ‘motivation’ to act under-developed.

While early psychotherapists such as Freud or Kohut placed emphasis on empathy as a means of understanding the psychic state of others, developmental psychologists were more concerned with the affect evoked in the subject (by an outside person or object). The importance of this distinction rests in how the concept of ‘empathy’ or even ‘affect’ was then subsequently used by political theorists. For example, Nussbaum – who unlike Sen did expound a model of empathy and emotions – focused much of her discussion on empathy and compassion (Nussbaum 2001) on the psychotherapy tradition. The real strength of Morrell’s argument, instead, stems from his attempt at viewing these various strands and definitions of empathy as parts of a multi-dimensional whole. While it’s true that empathy involves emotion to a greater or lesser degree, this emotion is almost always invariably conditioned by, prompted by or the result of cognitive or rational processes.

Like Sen and Crocker, Morrell (in recognising the pluralism of values, conceptions of the good, identities and beliefs) does not agree with the Rawlsian limitations on what is or is not admissible in a deliberative setting. With the importance he places upon every individual in a society having ‘equal consideration’ whenever that society engages in collective decision-making, he arrives at a beautifully nuanced definition of deliberative democracy. He defines it as ‘a practice in which people contemplate a political object (viz., an issue, policy, or candidate) by engaging in an inclusive, attentive communicative exchange’ (p.161). There does not appear to be a definition of ‘publically accessible’ reasons or rationalist justifications here. Rather he emphasises the necessity for every individual’s ‘input’ to be given equal consideration. This allows his deliberative framework to include the use of narrative, oral histories, as well as specialist data and ‘expert advice’. It is an understanding of morality or ethical decision-making that is necessarily social and communicative in nature. Or as Hilde Lindemann elsewhere argues, morality is something that is done, together. It is a ‘socially embodied medium of understanding and adjustment in which people engage in practices of allotting, assuming, or deflecting responsibilities of different kinds’ (p.69).

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Lindemann notes a recent narrative trend in ethics wherein stories are not used simply to illustrate moral or ethical situations to others, but are considered a constitutive means by which those stories create a person’s moral understanding of a particular problem, issue or context. From stories that we read, to those we analyse; from those we counter or parody to those we use to construct our sense of self, the idea of ethical deliberation as an ongoing practice would be consistent with the idea that in attempting to arrive at some agreement about a particular ‘object’ (to use Morrell’s term), it is necessary to know where deliberators have come from (i.e. the narrative arc which has brought them to inhabit this particular space at this particular moment in search of some agreement or consensus). For all this knowing, argues Lindemann, we need narratives that ‘display who we are, narratives that depict the history and possible future of our relationships, and narratives that trace the shifts in our shared understandings’ (p.69). Narratives are embodied histories containing affect (often evoked through a particular detail recalled and recounted) which are informed by an awareness of self and situatedness within a given context, relationship, moment in time, etc. They are ‘stories that show how a situation comes to be the particular problem that it is, and that explore imaginatively the continuations that might resolve the problem and what they mean for the parties involved’ (p.69). And it is the imaginative and affective qualities which they evoke in a listener or fellow participant in deliberation, which can assist in properly attuning a group to the nature of a particular need or its possible solution.

By viewing deliberative communication as involving more than simply a series of ‘inputs’, it is possible to take more seriously  the embodied emotions of participant deliberators. Repertoires, roles, narratives – embodied and socially mediated forms of affect and meaning – are the key features of an empathic model which seeks not to narrow the field of discussion to a particular mode or moment of decision. This ‘expressive’ space allows for an understanding of moral questions and ethical answers which is not abstracted from the persons and relationships who embody those questions and wish to live those answers. Appreciation for creativity, curiosity, ethical humility and generation of new insight through deliberation, highlighted leads Kimberly Hutchings to suggest that such an approach implies a discourse ethics which might be far more radically democratic, given the plurality of viewpoints which could participate in the process, with no promise or necessity for common ground to be achieved, necessarily. In terms of the moral relation between participants, moreover, it ‘is no longer one of static equality, but instead one of dynamic inequality, in which participants shift between modes of moral humility and moral authority’ (p.163). Indeed it is this distinction which she highlights between modes of authority and humility, which I think captures best the nature of this ‘empathic ethics’ of post-development which I propose. It requires us to ‘put [our] own assumptions into question and strain to imagine what it might mean to be and think differently (p.165).

If the topic under discussion here is meant to relate to how a development ethicist might see herself within the world of post-development theory and practice, then I posit an ‘empathic participant’ as an alternative to the MDG, outcomes-based development actor. This participant, much like the pluriverse itself, is not ‘static’ in her moral considerations, insofar as she herself might inhabit, at different times, differing moral voices. She may well inhabit a world which requires that she both speak with and speak for the needs of particular others. As such, she holds an important ethical responsibility to modulate her moral voice accordingly, recognising her own shifting and variable roles or ‘intersected standpoints’. The clearest result of this understanding is both of the precarity of often firmly held moral convictions, but also of the humility necessary to engage with the human dignity of ‘the other’. This requires acceptance of the ubiquitous nature of human vulnerability, human expression and human aspiration. Engaging ethically in a world of contrasting development goals and definitions, competing needs and aspirations, requires moral deliberation of a more robust nature than ‘enlightened reason’ or the achievement of MDG goals has been able to provide to date. With creativity, curiosity, humility, shared responsibility and wonder, such a vision of development ethics, may yet unfold. At this critical juncture in the establishment of new goals for the next fifteen years of International Development practice, meaningful engagement with both the realities of interdependence (and shifting positions of power and vulnerability across spaces and time) and responsibility is needed. This, in turn, will require that development ethicists engage with and within the pluriverse of development visions which care, empathy, and ultimately social justice most require of them now.

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