USAID’s Core Values:  Really “Core”?

a compass with a black background. the red north arrow points to the words Core Value

My first and only visit to the African Development Bank, in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, was in 1989. I went there expressly to meet with their environmental specialist, an American gentleman whose name I sadly cannot now recall. I was then a very young town & regional planner, based in Nairobi, and I was very interested in the possibilities offered by this new area of focus at the AfDB. You see, he was the very first environmental specialist ever hired by that institution. He had no staff, a negligible budget, an exceptionally unassuming office, but he was secure in knowing that his work mattered. Indeed, as he shared with me then: “How can international development NOT take into consideration the important contributions offered by the field of environmental planning?”

That gentleman was a prescient pioneer, filling a gap that few people even recognized at that time. Environmental planning and environmental sciences are now central components of international development everywhere. So much has changed in those intervening 33 years.

Now, as an international development ethicist, I face a similar quandary. How can international development (and humanitarian response) NOT take into consideration the important contributions offered by the field of applied ethics? It’s a germane question; there is currently not a single ethicist among the more than 9,000 staff employed at the U.S. Agency for International Development (not counting lawyers working on regulatory compliance ethics). The input of applied ethicists is also never featured as a skillset sought in any USAID procurements.

It’s not a new query for me. In 2006, I accompanied one of the leading pioneers of international development ethics, Dr. David Crocker, to speak to interested USAID staff about the case for considering values and ethics. USAID had not had many eminent philosophers come to speak with them, and Dr. Crocker was treated with both interest and respect. He and I made our pitch and offered some modest recommendations (e.g., have an ethicist participate in a democracy & governance assessment team for a USAID program country), all of which were contained in a report that has long since disappeared from USAID’s database. None of those recommendations were ever acted upon, yet I continue to assert that the absence of the insights, methodologies, and perspectives of applied ethics is a gap that needs to be filled at USAID without delay.

We might be at an opportune time for USAID to rethink applied ethics.  Recently, the Society for International Development hosted a talk by a senior USAID officer, who described the latest round of organizational restructuring now being proposed for the Agency. During the Q&A session, I posed one question to him: “Is there any room in this new structure for bringing in the well-developed practitioner field of applied ethics? With the importance of dignity, rights, freedoms, and opportunities that abound in humanitarian response and development, why does USAID largely ignore this important skillset?” The gentleman was taken aback by the question, and he paused before saying that he would take it back to the team to discuss. I’m not sure if that discussion ever took place…

USAID is not averse to invoking explicit references to the importance of recognizing and respecting universal human dignity, rights, freedoms, and opportunities. There is, however, no identified methodological space nor any team of ethicists evaluating USAID’s performance in terms of important moral values and the ethical principles derived from such values.

This isn’t to say that USAID does not have core values. They do: (1) passion for mission, (2) excellence, (3) integrity, (4) respect, (5) empowerment, (6) inclusion, and (7) commitment to learning. It isn’t clear how, by whom, or on what parameters these particular values were selected and posted on their website back in 2018, but they are fine values.

Fine values need to be more than website wallpaper, however.

Values need to be actively integrated and imbued in an organization’s goals, objectives, operations, and culture. This needs to happen simultaneously from both bottom up (alignment with staff values) and top down (transformational leadership and ‘walking the talk’) approaches. While this is no small feat in an organization the size of USAID, it is critical to USAID unpacking and living out its core values. A brief tour through USAID’s stated core values might begin this unpacking, offer some insights, and raise important questions on the Agency’s relationship to these values.

The first cited value, “passion for mission”, includes a reference to “…foster sustainable development and advance human dignity globally”. This is excellent, but it leads me immediately to a desire to see USAID’s baseline of human dignity indicators around the world, and how they are measuring this advancement in the outputs and outcomes of the work that they do, in the specific context of human dignity. Such analytical pursuits are the bread and butter of applied ethics, but where is that baseline, and why is no one doing this measurement at the Agency?

The second core value, excellence, is important but also vague. Excellence in what? To what end? Measured how, and by whom? So much about excellence depends on the scope and value of the goal being sought, since it would be entirely possible to achieve excellence in a pursuit that had little positive moral content, or that was of inadequate relevance to the larger issues at hand. Was that excellence achieved through trade-offs that were morally unjustified?

Integrity definitely deserves to be on any core values list. Meaningful and productive human relationships, collaboration, solidarity, fair competition, and teamwork all depend on the social glue of trust that only comes from integrity – both personal and institutional. The capacity for people to cultivate and demonstrate integrity is central to our development prospects in any society. Oddly then, that notion of integrity barely gets a mention (if at all) in USAID’s many programmatic efforts in anti-corruption. Integrity remains the ignored other side of the coin to corruption, yet by focusing exclusively on preventing, constraining, and holding miscreants accountable for their corrupt behavior, USAID is missing out on promoting this core value. In the absence of considering the human potential for integrity (and the related ethos of public service), cynicism as to the pervasive immorality and venal self-interest of persons hardens. With too much cynicism, we will no longer bother even to look for integrity, much less celebrate those who exemplify it.

Core value number four, respect, is a driver of reciprocity, diversity, professionalism, and equality. Once we recognize the universal nature of human dignity and equality, Immanuel Kant and many other philosophers make a very persuasive rational argument that we are morally obligated to respect it. That “respect” can be measured by how we enact that respect. One excellent set of indicators (among several) showing evidence of respect for dignity and equality are the recognized human rights. I’m thinking here not just of the diplomatically approved legal and treaty versions of civil and political human rights, but also the deeper and more motivational moral versions of these human rights that span the civil, political, economic, cultural, and social spectrum. As a development agency, taking the measure of respect for universal human dignity across all these moral parameters in every aspect of the Agency’s work would be appropriate.

That is not what happens now at USAID, where “human rights” work is concentrated in one institutional structure and largely concerns itself with the depressing but necessary cataloging of egregious human rights abuses around the world, presumably hoping for accountability to be rendered at some point through an elusive day in court. Even the Agency’s limited promotion of human rights is concentrated on advocating for compliance with legal agreements of civil and political rights. Yes, this is necessary work, but such a minimalist approach to using the full palette of moral human rights to describe, measure, and guide humanitarian response and international development is doing development with an arm tied behind the Agency’s back.

Respect should also be extended to the environment in which we live, if we ever hope for success in overcoming the climate crisis.

Empowerment is next. While supporting the capacity of every person to achieve their full potential and exercise full moral agency in the world is clearly highly relevant to the work of development – and even more so for people who are traditionally disempowered due to culture norms associated with gender or other marginalized status – empowerment can be a thin concept. Any individual can be facilitated by USAID programming to become more confident, skillful, and better educated, with leadership enhanced and with community support. Still, unless the structural issues that are embedded in patriarchy and other dominant systems (e.g., heteronormativity) are tackled, expecting “empowered” individuals to change the world for the better is asking a lot of them, and may even be setting them up to fail.

USAID has recently made significant progress in embracing value number six, inclusion. Seeing the appointment of Jay Gilliam as the Senior LGBTQI+ Coordinator, with a staff and a (still much too small) budget, is commendable. So too is the excellent work of Anthony Cotton and his team at the new Inclusive Development Hub institutional structure, supported by several new procurements in this area. Inclusion, however, is a very complex and intersectional notion. The best driver of inclusive societies are the moral values that move people to recognize, respect, and celebrate diversity. In many countries where USAID works, certain variations of diversity are criminalized or otherwise persecuted, as local and cultural exclusionary values are not held up to rational scrutiny. The central discipline of applied ethics is that values must be seen to be rationally defensible and hence persuasive, if such values are to support, define, or limit the freedoms and opportunities of others. This is why religious values are welcomed as cherished values based on beliefs, but such values have no place in defining civil rights and freedoms of others who do not share those beliefs. The important work of making the moral and secular case for inclusion – to overcome morally unjustifiable biases against inclusion based on race, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, caste, and other identity determinants – is essential, but there are no ethicists now at USAID working on inclusion.

Finally, USAID values a commitment to learning. This is obviously not only commendable, but essential to the role of the world’s largest bilateral aid agency. There is always so much to learn, but in learning too there are very important epistemological aspects that call upon reflection from a moral perspective. Knowledge and data are almost always “situated” in contexts, and those contexts are replete with moral and cultural values and local ownership. These values need to be recognized and respected accordingly, so that diverse sources of knowledge are included and valued, and always held up to the light of the foundational commitment to universal human dignity. In learning, the overlap between applied ethics, sociology, epistemology, and research expertise should be paramount.

Development people are good people; we all care about what we do. Yet the space to talk on a regular basis about why we do care about humanitarian response and development work doesn’t exist in any formal institutional context at USAID, nor will you find it in most other development practitioner organizations and firms.  Consider how empowering, uplifting, and clarifying it would be to have somewhere to share your thoughts and hear from others on a regular basis about the moral values that motivate all of us to come and work in humanitarian response and international development. Not only do we all deserve an institutional space for this kind of validating regular discourse, doing so would help us to develop and hone our moral and ethical discernment skills and enable us to confront values-based conflicts and dilemmas within a supportive environment.

USAID should take this organizational restructuring opportunity to back up its core values with the expertise able to make these values measurable, meaningful, motivational, and much more robust. It’s time – indeed, well overdue – for USAID to embrace applied ethics.

By Chloe Schwenke, Ph.D.,

President of the Center for Values in International Development

The Center for Values in International Development
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