Q&A | Tom Goodfellow: Reconciling ethical dilemmas in development aid

Sheffield Institute for International Development’s Tom Goodfellow hosted a workshop about how cognitive dissonance and ethical dilemmas play out in international development last month. The workshop gave rise to intense, thought-provoking discussion around the internal conflicts development practitioners often face through the course of their work. Sarah was there, and interviewed Tom to get a bit of background to the event, and the ideas it explored.

How did you become interested in the idea of cognitive dissonance?
Through doing my PhD research basically, which was on urban issues in Rwanda and Uganda. I became very much struck by how mentally and emotionally exhausting it can be doing research in countries like them. As an outsider it’s difficult to understand a lot about what’s going on, whether you feel it’s positive or negative – because there are all these things happening in terms of development and economic growth and poverty reduction that are exciting, and seem very encouraging, but then you also get exposed to a lot of quite distressing information. About human rights abuses, or about restrictions on freedoms, inequalities, and about structural problems that prevent many people from realising their potential.

“There are really important political aspects to providing aid to those countries, but there’s also a psychological dimension as well.”

So this project is a longstanding thing that I’ve been mulling over since 2009 or 10, when I was doing PhD fieldwork. How do people who are working in those contexts, and trying to provide policy advice and assistance, and aid really deal with these tensions? Particularly with a country like Rwanda, you have a very polarised academic and policy debate, where for a long time you’ve had a kind of team of people who are extremely excited about Rwanda because it’s achieved a lot in terms of economic growth and poverty reduction, and it’s physically transforming in a very visual way, so a lot of people have latched onto Rwanda as this new model of development happening in Africa, in a very poor country. At the same time, you have people who are very concerned about events there – particularly the human rights community, and a lot of critical academic scholars.

There is a middle ground, and people are starting to be more nuanced in their analysis of what’s happening in Rwanda, but for a long time it was really very polarised – and it still is in many ways, between people who would just be very critical and see it as a terrible dictatorship, albeit with some economic progress, and people who saw it as kind of a beacon of hope, even though they were aware there were some human rights problems. But what you tend to get is people reinforcing their own ideas and opinions.

Tom’s panel ‘Dissonance and development: ethical dilemmas, psychology and sustainability in development assistance’ has just been approved for the DSA2017 conference. Call for papers now open, apply here

That’s what got me interested in cognitive dissonance. How do people process information when they’re in a situation like I was, getting all these positive and negative stories and it messing with your head? How do people process it in different ways, who actually have to make a decision? They either support this or they don’t support this. They do something or they don’t. There are really important political aspects to providing aid to those countries, but there’s a psychological dimension as well.

How would you explain cognitive dissonance?
Basically, it’s this idea that the human mind somehow seeks an internal consistency, and we’re quite psychologically uncomfortable when we have ideas that seem to conflict. You hear about this a lot in common terms. If you’ve got two ideas in your brain that don’t make sense together, there’s a certain amount of mental discomfort that goes with it. So you try and resolve it, you try and make those things fit. That situation where you have two ideas that seem to conflict is cognitive dissonance. There are dissonant ideas in your mind. Then there’s a process through which, psychologically, you try to reconcile those two beliefs. It might be that one of them gets downplayed, it might be that you distort some of the information you have about one thing to try and make it fit with the other. But you’re essentially seeking a mental consistency.

“The human mind somehow seeks an internal consistency, and we’re quite psychologically uncomfortable when we have ideas that seem to conflict.”

What’s very interesting is how relevant it is right now in the world. We have this incredibly divided politics in Europe and the US. The degree to which UK society became polarised through the Brexit vote, and similarly in the US with Trump and so on, has been quite shocking to many people. It hasn’t been the conventional divides. I’ve seen various pieces talking about cognitive dissonance, talking about confirmation bias, talking about people finding this a very distressing world we’re living in right now, and needing to just reaffirm that their beliefs are right.

You hear people talk about the echo chamber of social media, or of newspapers, where people are basically constantly having their own beliefs reaffirmed. Then it makes people even more and more polarised, because you only expose yourself to things that reaffirm what you believe. Because if you start hearing the other side of the story, it’s a bit distressing, and you get confused and you don’t know where you are. In situations of great uncertainty, this problem of cognitive dissonance, and needing to confirm what you believe, and making yourself feel mentally comfortable – that you’re right – is becoming very important, and something that people are talking about a lot.

Image source.

That in a way is exactly what’s going on all the time in the countries I referred to earlier, where they are in situations of great distress, and coming out of conflict and division, and people’s need to confirm their bias. That’s really what got me interested in this. In these countries, people have these strong biases for or against – like what was going on in somewhere like Rwanda – and they would be confirming them all the time. So, it’s trying to see what relevance this quite old theory of cognitive dissonance has specifically to development practice. Which is also relevant because development aid itself is coming under so much pressure – lots of people just want to abolish it. The Secretary of International Development in our country isn’t even very keen on it. Yet, obviously there’s a whole bunch of people who are desperate to protect what foreign aid is, and what it represents, and what it can do.

Have you had any specific personal experiences that have led you to look at dissonance?
I’ve never worked as a development practitioner, but what I have experienced as a researcher is the mental exhaustion, and the confusion that comes with that. Your sense of certainty, your sense of understanding of what’s right and wrong, and having some kind of consistency in how you interpret the world. Being able to interpret that comfortably is shaken up in those situations, in a way that it never has been in normal life at home for me, for example. I don’t typically see things that challenge what I was thinking the day before. I have political views, and I have ideas about the world and the society that I live in, and they’re sometimes challenged in some ways, but they’re very often reinforced.

When you go to a new place and it’s completely different from anywhere you’ve been, and you have what appear to be these two opposing dialogues – you can spend weeks talking to people who just give you these amazing stories of positive, encouraging things going on, and then you gradually discover this other side of things. I haven’t experienced any deep trauma because of this, and I haven’t been in a position, as many people have, of working in a conflict situation, in a very traumatic situation – all with very traumatised populations. This is just an idea I had, it may or may not prove to be a very valid way of looking at things, but I’m very keen to just know what people think about it, and what they have to say.

I think the tensions you speak of are probably characteristic of development generally speaking. There are these constant ethical dilemmas connected to it, and conflict over whether the practice is even valid. But, obviously you want to be conscious and aware, and critical and self-aware, but you can’t stay in that headspace or nothing would ever happen. And that’s without the weight of high-stress political conflict.
Exactly, and somewhere like Rwanda is quite a specific situation, where I think it’s quite extreme. The debate is quite unusual. You read about Kenya, or Guatemala, or numerous other countries – and you’ll read people just giving an academic analysis of what’s happening there, the positives and negatives and so on. But in Rwanda there was a sense in which there were these two camps – you were either in one or the other – and you would meet people and they would say, ‘Paul Kagame’s the President of Rwanda, are you for him or against him?’ Or, ‘Rwanda – good or bad?’

This is how outsiders talked about the country. If you were in one camp, as it were, you were expected to just process the information that didn’t support your view in a particular way. Just say, ok, well that’s going on, but it doesn’t change the fact that this is the real story. I found those processes quite interesting. But it is a broader issue about development generally, because very few people are really fully confident that what they’re doing, when countries provide aid and assistance of various kinds, is right and is working. But they have to believe that ultimately it’s right and it’s working, otherwise why are they doing it? That conflict is a real problem.

Which probably intensifies the longer you work in development, rather than the other way around.
Oh yeah. Looking at it in this psychological way is quite controversial, and I think many people were not very happy about the fact that this workshop was doing that. There’s been a lot of interest in cognitive psychology in the social sciences, which is also linked to behavioural economics, and randomised control trials and testing things, and saying, ‘well if we can just understand people’s mental processes then we can perfect our interventions’. Which a lot of people see as being quite depoliticising, as pulling out the ethical and political debate, and just making it into an individual process of decisionmaking. A cognitive process. When actually there are big, structural issues, and political issues about foreign aid – and who they support and who they don’t, and why it matters.

Surely all of those things can co-exist?
They can co-exist, and they have to co-exist – they do co-exist, and that’s why we held the workshop. But I’m just making the point that there’s been some reticence, where people are uncomfortable with this psychologising of the problem. I think that’s partly because people think that’s looking at the psychology separately from everything else, and it’s been very helpful to have been made aware that’s how some people might see it. I’ve tried to make it very clear that the point is to situate the political and ethical dilemmas and the psychological processes all together. Because actually, the big picture stuff about the politics of aid is very important, but individual people are involved, and are making decisions. We want to look at it more holistically.

Personally, it seems like whoever you talk to has a different framing of what aid is, and what development is. As a student, it took me so long – in NZ it tends to be taught very much as aid, then coming to Manchester there was more focus on the economic side, which made a lot more sense to me.
Yeah, and I think we have to confront, all the time – whether we’re researchers or development practitioners, or people working for a government in a country that receives external support, or ordinary people who are somehow affected by that external support, we have to confront the position that we hold, and our beliefs and our biases, and I think it’s particularly important – when more and more evidence is emerging about different effects of aid and international assistance, good and bad.

For a long time people weren’t all that critical about this stuff. It just seemed quite obvious that you support people, and it’s a positive thing. You have people who observe some of the more negative outcomes of aid, or supposed outcomes of aid, and immediately condemn the whole thing. There’s all this information flying around – The Daily Mail has waged this enormous campaign against foreign aid, mounting over the years, and of course lots of people read that and will never take seriously any information that says foreign aid could be useful, beneficial. Then of course, people who do support development assistance and believe in it, won’t even engage with these criticisms a lot of the time. Many of them are outrageous criticisms, saying that.

“We can’t ignore the fact that there’s a psychological process going on for all of us. And that people make important decisions.”

But I don’t think we can ignore the psychological dimension of all of this. It’s big, it’s very much about global politics – national politics if you live in a country like the UK – whether we give aid, how we give it. It’s very political. But we can’t ignore the fact that there’s a psychological process going on for all of us, and that people make important decisions. I don’t think we should just cast aside this whole discipline of psychology just because people are a bit uncomfortable with individualising and depoliticising it.

It’s also hard to quantify. It’s hard to draw a line around the psychological dimension – partly because it’s different for everyone. So it’s really hard to put that in a box, and teach it. “This is how you deal with every development-related conflict you might come up against.”
The other thing is, in recent years there has been a lot of interest in psychology, and in cognitive elements of development, but it’s all been applied to thinking about the poor, and why they do what they do. The World Bank’s World Development Report in 2015 was called ‘Mind, Society, & Behaviour’, and the whole thing was about, most of the report was about how we understand corruption, the minds of the poor, through a lens of psychology? People are, quite understandably, a bit uncomfortable about it because it again tends to reduce a lot of the problems of poverty and development to psychological issues and behaviour, when there are these huge global structural issues and inequalities, and power differentials. But also, that report only briefly considered the psychological issues, as they affect donor and development assistance – people like those who work in the World Bank. So it’s also just a rebalancing I think, of how psychology is applied to development. That’s the other motivation for doing this.

Tom Goodfellow is a Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies & Planning at the University of Sheffield. He is a Research Fellow with the Sheffield Institute for International Development (SIID).

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.