A rose by any other name: good global citizenship

Bust of Hippocrates on black background

At the Center for Global Development we spend our days (and quite a lot our nights) thinking about how the policies and actions of rich countries and powerful institutions affect the world’s poor. We look not only at aid, which is the focus of many other people working in development, but also at the effects of other policies, such as on investment, migration, environment, security, trade, technology and global health.

Given this is what we do, it is awkward that we do not have a simple way of describing this broader range of issues on which we work.

There are two phrases which are often used in the rarefied discussion and communiqués of international conferences: ‘policy coherence for development‘ and ‘the do no harm principle‘. I think both ideas are flawed, for reasons I explain below. We at CGD in Europe have been using the term ‘beyond aid‘. But that is not ideal either.

I would like to use the phrase ‘good global citizenship’, though my American friends tell me that this may conjure up unwelcome connotations of black helicopters flying out of Turtle Bay.

(You might well think this is a self-indulgent rant about semantic niceties, and it is definitely a #firstworldproblem. Nonetheless, language matters for all sorts of reasons: it can reinforce misleading presumptions and prejudices, and unconsciously shape priorities.)

‘The do no harm principle’

I flinch every time I hear someone talk about ‘the do no harm principle’. It is presumably intended to echo a phrase from the Hippocratic Oath:

I will use treatments for the benefit of the ill in accordance with my ability and my judgment, but from what is to their harm and injustice I will keep them.

There is much to like in the Hippocratic Oath, but it makes no sense, in medicine or in development, to insist that we should ‘do no harm‘. The only way to achieve that objective would be to do nothing at all.

Almost all of the most important steps on the road to development produce losers as well as (many more) winners. The cotton spinners of Blackburn were harmed by the invention of the spinning jenny. Corrupt officials are harmed by efforts to improve public financial management. Lorry drivers are harmed when the railway is built. Should we stand against policies and actions which promote development because it is inevitable that someone, somewhere will lose from those changes? We can ‘do no harm‘ only if we oppose all development.

Furthermore, the ‘do no harm principle‘ is unavoidably a ‘take no risks principle’. A medicine may save millions of lives, but there are always some possible side effects such as allergies or the risk of contaminated supplies. If we provide a medicine to millions of people, the chances are that at least one person will be harmed by it. The only way to ‘do no harm‘ is to give it to nobody. Strictly speaking the ‘do no harm principle’ requires that nobody anywhere should be vaccinated, denying benefits to millions of people. We won’t get far in development if we take no risks.

In practice, the phrase ‘do no harm‘ is often used as a shorthand for the sensible idea that we should pay attention to the broader effects of our choices, and be alive to the likelihood of unintended consequences. This should be uncontroversial. We should pursue policies which do (much) more good than harm, which take account of the broader consequences, which take proportionate steps to limit the harm and risks, and which are careful and responsible about looking after those who are likely to lose from change. But to encapsulate the need for more care about broader consequences as a ‘do no harm principle‘ seems to me to reinforce unhelpfully conservative presumptions, both in the broad policy narrative and in the way individual projects and programmes are appraised.

Finally, ‘the do no harm principle‘ embraces a supposed ethical distinction between action and inaction which I find repugnant, and which most of the moral philosophers that I admire reject. I believe we should be just as concerned about not allowing harm as we are of not doing harm. We should be judged not only by what we do, but what we fail to do.

‘Policy coherence for development’

If there is a phrase I like less than ‘do no harm‘, it is ‘policy coherence for development‘ or – worse – ‘PCD‘.  I dislike this term in part because it is ugly jargon that means nothing to anyone outside the echo chamber of development bureaucracy. But I dislike it also because it focuses attention on the wrong question.

My interest in broader policies is not whether they are ‘coherent‘ but whether they are helpful or harmful to the world’s poor. A country could have a set of policies on aid, trade, intellectual property rights, tax and financial flows which coherently benefit its own companies or which coherently ignore environmental sustainability, and which are nonetheless perfectly awful for international development.

It is often implicit in discussions of ‘policy coherence‘ that it is especially desirable that a country’s other policies (eg on trade) should be consistent with the objectives its aid programme.  But this is the aid tail wagging the policy dog: industrialised countries should have good policies on climate change or immigration because these policies would benefit poor people (as well as benefiting the people of the industrialised countries), not because such  policies would buttress the aid programme. You have to have a peculiar obsession with aid to think that coherence with the aid programme is a good reason for doing the right thing.

This isn’t an entirely academic objection: I was recently at a meeting on Policy Coherence for Development at which one of the delegates, a mid-ranking official from her country’s foreign ministry, argued strongly that the focus of a work programme on policy coherence should be how different policies interacted with each other, rather than examining those policies primarily from the perspective of how they impact on developing countries. (Her point – with which it is difficult to argue – was that this is what the term actually means.)

Policy coherence would presumably be a consequence of a country having development-friendly policies in every different area. But policy coherence is not an objective in its own right, nor is it a powerful motivation for normal people. It takes a peculiar narcissism bordering on obsessive-compulsive disorder of policy wonks to elevate coherence between policies as a higher virtue than the individual impact of those policies on poor people.

‘Aid and beyond’

Because the ‘do no harm principle‘ is effectively a ‘do no development principle‘, and ‘policy coherence’ is an OCD obsession with consistency rather than impact, in CGD in Europe we have been looking for a different way of describing our work. We have settled on  ‘beyond aid‘ to describe our initiative which looks at the way that the policies of European countries affect development. Though I prefer this by some distance to ‘do no harm‘ or ‘policy coherence for development‘, it suffers from two slightly contradictory yet significant drawbacks.

First, by defining these policies as things which are ‘beyond aid’, we seem to imply that aid is still first among equals in the way we approach development. Why don’t we call it ‘beyond trade’ or ‘beyond migration’? By calling it ‘beyond aid’ we might reinforce the idea that aid is the first or main instrument for tackling development, and everything else is an optional extra.

Second, the phrase ‘beyond aid’ is sometimes misinterpreted as implying that we should put aid behind us – in other words, that aid is no longer needed or useful. There are people who believe that, sometimes with considerable passion, but you do not have to be one of them to believe that these other policies are important. We do not want to use a term which implies that people should be forced to choose between aid and improvements in other policies, when they can reasonably support both.

Officials at the OECD recently asked us to call an event in which they were participating ‘aid and beyond‘ instead of ‘beyond aid‘ because they wanted us to emphasize that these policies are important as well as, and not instead of, aid.  While ‘aid and beyond‘ helps to avoid the the implication that we should forget about aid, it suggests even more strongly that aid should have pride of place in our thinking. I see why this implication might be attractive to the home of the trade union of aid agencies Development Assistance Committee, but describing the development policy agenda in this way risks distorting our priorities by appearing to put aid at its centre.

Good global citizenship

So if we cannot talk about ‘the do no harm principle’, ‘policy coherence for development‘ or ‘aid and beyond‘, what shorthand can we use for the wide range of policies which affect poor people around the world?

I like the phrase ‘good global citizenship’.  I’ve adapted this phrase from David Roodman who has been doing some analysis with a working title of a Global Citizenship Index. It resonates with the idea that we are concerned with how countries, governments, companies, institutions and people behave as global citizens – helping shape the norms and rules, and living within them, for our collective benefit and to protect the weakest and most marginalised members of society. I think this idea captures well the set of policies and behaviours by which rich countries, emerging powers and international institutions affect developing countries and poor people. It has the merit of being accurate and easily understood.

I gather from some American friends that this may sound less appealing to American ears: perhaps it sounds too much as if it is the first step down the road to global government, which ends with black helicopters flying out of  the UN offices on Turtle Bay to pacify the land of the free. I would be interested to know if this phrase really is too neuralgic for an American audience. (Please tell us in the comments.)

I believe that no development institution should be created unless at least one is closed down at the same time; and I feel the same way about jargon. So if we are going to start talking about ‘good global citizenship’, then at the same time we should strike ‘the do no harm principle’, ‘policy coherence for development’ and ‘aid and beyond‘ from the development lexicon.

Improvements on ‘good global citizenship’ or defences of the existing phrases welcome in the comments.

UPDATE: Norman Geras disagrees. I think he makes a very good point. I have more consequentialist instincts than him, but I accept there are some harms that can’t just be put in the balance. Accepting his argument, my formulation which he quotes isn’t quite right. But my main point stands: the phrase ‘do no harm’ makes no sense. The phrase ‘good global citizenship’ still seems attractive. 

22 thoughts on “A rose by any other name: good global citizenship”

  1. Interesting discussion, and a tricky problem. I like the concept of ‘good global citizenship’, as that (unlike the others) seems to capture the ultimate aim of research and discussion. However, I would worry it’s a bit ‘motherhood and apple pie’ – nobody is against good global citizenship, because everybody has their own idiosyncratic notion of what global citizenship means.

    I think you’re too harsh on ‘policy coherence’ and ‘beyond aid’. I think the idea of policy coherence is not to fetishise consistency, but to recognise that it is almost always more likely to be successful to show that a person, government or society is failing to do the right thing by their own lights than by setting up an alternative standard. ‘Your actions are self-defeating’ is more powerful than ‘You’re doing the wrong thing’. 

    As for ‘beyond aid’, I don’t think it necessarily implies aid is first among equals, but rather it recognises that development and aid are near-synonymous in the public mind, and so is just trying to advance the conversation beyond that.

  2. Owen, thanks very much for this discursion into language. A few thoughts:
    * If I’m not mistaken, we owe the phrase “beyond aid,” which I also like, to Alan Hudson. See this <a href=”http://www.odi.org.uk/publications/3288-beyond-aid-policy-coherence“>ODI publication</a>.
    * In settling tentatively on “global citizenship” I was taking nations as the unit of analysis, as in the <a href=”http://www.cgdev.org/cdi”>Commitment to Development Index</a>. In that context, the phrase leads to the question: What ought nations to do, out of a mix of altruism and self-interest, to be good global citizens? In answering that question, does it help t analogize with individuals within nations? I.e., what does it mean for me to be a good citizen of my polity? I think most people would agree that being a good citizen goes beyond giving money to the poor (the analog of foreign aid) to observing rule of law, participating in civic and political forums, paying taxes (to fund a social contract?), etc. What are the analogous answers for nations within the international community? Which ones are worth keeping and fighting for?
    * In discussions that you and I and others had at CGD last week, “global citizenship” was also used to refer to individuals. As in: “many young people today see themselves as global citizens.” We could also apply  the phrase to corporations. This made me realize that “global citizenship” is ambiguous as to referent. That ambiguity may be treacherous and useful.
    * I too am interested to hear what people, especially North Americans, think of “global citizenship” as a term, and what alternatives they might suggest.

  3. I like “Cosmopolitan policymaking” because every morning I wake up wondering how to make the world more like the magazine.

  4. Thanks much for an interesting discussion.
    I completely agree that “do no harm” should be re-framed as minimizing and compensating risks and losses.
    In moving beyond ‘beyond aid,’ it seems like you are seeking a term that reflects how we conceptualize one state’s influence on another, measuring ‘sum’ or ‘net’ or ‘total’ international influence rather than compartmentalizing it into aid, trade, military, and so on.
    If we are striving for a positive (on chosen development indicators) sum influence, are we trying to be good global citizens? David Roodman points out that citizenship implies both rights and responsibilities but at least from my view of US politics, we largely disregard the latter, which might weaken the utility of referring to ‘citizens.’ Also, citizenship is bound up with statehood – whether nations or individuals are the unit of analysis – and it is therefore not quite clear what to do with non-state actors.
    For these reasons, I guess I would vote for a term more de-linked from states and governments to indicate whether global actors are trying to ensure their net influence – through action and inaction, though the latter would be hard to measure – on a particular country is as positive as possible.  This would certainly be a cosmopolitan approach but I don’t really know what it means to be a good or relatively better cosmopolitan.  Perhaps the magazine offers a multiple choice quiz to determine the extent to which one is a “cosmo girl’ that would provide a good launching point. Maybe synonyms for ‘membership’ rather than ‘citizenship’ would prove fruitful?

  5. Good challenge, Owen. A few thoughts:
    1. There’s no need to apologize for focusing on language. Language makes a huge difference – both for clarifying our own ideas and for entering a dialogue with others. How else can we progress as human beings?
    2. The more i think about it, the more i like your term “good global citizenship.” It emphasizes not only that we have collective actions but we (whether states or individuals) collectively have a role in choosing our goals. Especially if it is tightly linked to the idea of ‘rights AND responsibilities,’ it puts everyone on equal footing and breaks from charity-mode and white man’s burden thinking. 
    3. Part of the US polity will definitely interpret ‘good global citizenship’ as a conspiracy to enslave Americans under totalitarian global government. So what? The extreme absurdity of this perspective shouldn’t stop us from making a pitch for the majority of people around the world (including the US) to build trust in shared rules and governance structures that are in our own individual and collective best interest.
    [To show you how absurd this has gotten domestically, the (tea party) Governor of Maine (who was elected by a plurality in a 3-way race) eliminated a  committee that had been set up to help towns along a major coastal road coordinate their road, transportation and town planning. The reason? a small group of agitators claimed that it was inspired by a UN Centralized Planning Program (you know, “sustainable development”!!).]
    4. “Advancing Cosmopolitanism” would  definitely be a great way of characterizing what you’re after and it comes with a weighty philosophical literature (Habermas, Pogge) – along with some weighty critics. The advantage relative to global citizenship is that we would spend less time telling people what it ‘isn’t’; but would have to spend lots more time explaining what it ‘is.’
    [Well, yes, i suppose we would also have to be thick-skinned – or lighthearted – enough to put up with Charles’ jokes about the mag and the inevitable satire from The Onion when we succeed at getting international attention to our cause  😉  ]

  6. As an American Native New Yorker living a few blocks away from Turtle Bay, “good global citizenship” is about as good as you can get and serves as an attractive doorway to open up rooms for new approaches. Close the old doors (institutional thinking which will mean careers and money in wrong places) as they no longer serve. Do it gradually so no one will notice enough to want to kill it. No one will object to Good Global Citizenship and will therefore not waste any more time on semantics but go forward with action to support the name. Now that’s the risk. It will succeed. 
    Good luck. 

  7. From a foreign policy paragraph in Obama’s inaugural speech–a hint of “global citizenship”?
    “And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.”

  8. To cut to the chase, any system of governance has three fundamental tasks:
    1) Provide public goods
    2) Internalise externalities
    3) Comfort the immiserated
    Since it is the case that any system of governance will have an immiserating edge to it, it then follows that there must always be in place social programmes to minimise such effects. By saying ‘Do No Harm’, I would argue that we are accepting the first two aforementioned responsibilities and not deliberately ignoring the third.

  9. The more I think about it, the more I like “good global citizenship”.  For all the reasons you point out, it seems a superior alternative and conveys the message you want.  One possible downside is that there is no clear call to action with “good global citizenship”.    Presumably, one of the purposes of such phrases is that they be used to influence policy makers and those who vote for policy makers.   It is not clear what needs to be done to support good global citizenship.   Vote in the elections for the UN World President?  Sometimes it will mean aid, sometimes better immigration policies, sometimes better trade policies.  That is very tricky to capture in a slogan.   Moreover, Americans have largely forgotten what it means to be a good national citizen, much less a global citizen, so any use of the  term citizen may be lost on us.  While I am convinced by your critique of “Beyond Aid”, it does have the clear message that policy makers need to look beyond aid for solutions to poverty and suffering (if not abandoning aid entirely which is such an ingrained habit is not likely to happen anyway).

  10. I like ‘good global citizenship’ and don’t see helicopters. Yet I hesitate to call any of us development types ‘good global citizens’. Who am I to judge? I think the most real thing I can say is that “I do the best I can and read Owen’s blog to find ways to do better.”

  11. I have always liked HOLISTIC DEVELOPMENT POLICY. Global citizenship, a worthy aspiration, is  too all-encompassing a term, and threatening to some.

  12. I disagree that “do no harm” is paralyzing. I think what is missing is the first part, “FIRST, do no harm.” Before we look at how to help, let’s make sure we’re not already causing the problem in any way. It’s a simple call away from hypocrisy to the holistic/coherent/etc.

    1. @Sarah – thanks. I don’t think the addition of ‘first’ on the front solves the dilemma. I agree that we should do our best to avoid causing problems – indeed, I work for an organisation focused on precisely that question. But I don’t believe it is a sensible principle to think that we can do most good by avoiding altogether the possibility of doing harm.

      1. Maybe better to say “First, stop DOING harm”?  I think the stop-causing-the-problem-you’re-trying-to-fix step is critical.
        Humility dictates that we acknowledge we won’t have the perfect project, but if there’s anything that’s causing the problem we’re trying to address – which happens so much in day-to-day life and larger systems too – it’s just silly not to correct that.
        I love how much you talk about the system dynamics at play in development. I think this is an important piece of those dynamics. I need to turn off my spicket to the problem’s bathtub.

        1. Sarah – Thanks. I think we agree about the substance.

          If I may quibble (and if I can’t be pedantic on my own blog, where can I be pedantic?) I think I would not put emphasis on ‘DOING’ in the way you have. For me the issue is not the (bogus) distinction between ‘doing’ and ‘allowing to happen’ but between solving problems which are our responsibility (e.g. trade laws, environment, arms sales etc) and solving problems which are someone else’s responsibility (the policies of other countries). I think we have a more immediate and pressing obligation to get our own house in order.


      2. Pingback: Do no harm? You have no choice « Left Outside

      3. Owen, forgive me for coming quite late to the conversation.  I think your points about PCD and do no harm make sense. They are difficult to engage people around, and can imply some degree of passivity. It was  interesting to see the number of comments from American colleagues here – and to read that perspective. The state issue around citizenship got me wondering whether a concept of a “positive global footprint” could work?  This could obviously be applied to governments, but could also apply to multinationals, individuals just as easily… I did a presentation some time ago about communicating on climate change and used a footprint infographic in one of my slides – the other slides were just as fun but that was the slide that seemed to stick most strongly in people’s minds. Just an idea.

        1. Hannah

          Thanks. I once drafted an outline for a book provisionally titled ‘Footprint’ for exactly the reasons you give. I never got round to writing it though. Maybe one day …


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      5. The term ‘good global citizen’ rubs me the wrong way. I feel like it implies privilege – that you have the means, technology, knowledge, access to travel, etc. to be a ‘global’ citizen. It kind of dis-empowers those who are working towards good that do not have the same types of access. The word ‘cosmopolitan’ is an even greater offender in this way. Also something about the tie that ‘citizen’ has to statehood is also distasteful to me, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I’m from Oakland, CA (San Francisco Bay Area) and just thought I’d share my thoughts.

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