Bringing morality and ethics to the forefront of NGOs’ legitimacy

5 min read
Image: WaterAid/Andrew McConnell

Robyn Waite, formerly a WaterAid Policy Officer, is a doctoral student with the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. Here she explains her research project, which she is currently conducting at WaterAid: ‘Towards an understanding of non-governmental development organisations’ moral legitimacy and applied ethics’.

Some things to keep in mind while reading…

Before we get started, it is important to note that my research is specifically interested in Northern International Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) seeking long-term poverty alleviation goals.

A key concept in my research is legitimacy, which is a ‘generalised perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and definitions’ (Suchman, 1995).

In my research, I intentionally distinguish between the terms ‘morals’ and ‘ethics’. Morals are established notions of what is right (or good), whereas ethics is the practical application of established morals. Without an understanding of ethics, morals can lack meaning in practice and analysis.

Morally derived legitimacy

I, like many academics, argue that NGOs’ main source of legitimacy is morally derived. The perception that NGOs are morally ‘good’ has fostered the development of public trust, as well as facilitated their ability to speak with authority, to secure a committed workforce, and attract diverse donors. Because NGOs’ legitimacy is primarily morally derived, their existence and practice is most logically supported by, and judged according to, what we would call ‘moral norms’.

Historically, the mere assumption of an NGO being a moral actor was enough to secure legitimacy for operating in the space of international development. However, it is becoming evident that claiming moral legitimacy is no longer good enough – claims must be corroborated.

These changing demands on NGOs’ legitimacy present threats to their legitimacy, especially considering there is an increasing body of empirical literature, as well as a prominent discourse of critique raising concerns around whether or not NGOs live up to their moral norms in practice.

These moral norms include normative understandings of good practice widely accepted across the sector (e.g. the principles of aid effectiveness for NGOs), as well as NGOs’ stated values (e.g. see WaterAid, ActionAid, and Oxfam values). In order to strengthen and defend claims to legitimacy, NGOs will increasingly need to be able to demonstrate that they apply these moral norms in practice.

Defining moral norms

And here lies the problem – NGO moral norms are currently not well understood in the literature or in practice. This is not surprising, given the limited engagement between the fields of philosophy and development studies, particularly from an applied ethics and NGO perspective.

Denis Goulet, pioneer of the emerging field of study Development Ethics, recognises that ‘ethicists were late arrivals on the stage of development studies’ (p5). Similarly, in Ethical Questions and International NGOs: An exchange between Philosophers and NGOs, Horton and Roche (2010) assert that ‘the ethical issues raised by development and humanitarian aid have not yet attracted nearly as much concentrated attention as the ethical issues in many other fields, such as medicine, business and the environment’ (p2). As a result, the NGO sector currently has well established morals (notions of what is good practice), but lacks an understanding of ethics (how morals are applied in practice).

What do moral norms mean in practice for NGOs?

This is what my research is all about – attempting to develop an understanding of what moral norms mean in the context of NGO development practice. I will do this by conducting an in-depth case study of WaterAid, looking at how it uses moral norms at an institutional level (both internally and externally), and how staff understand and apply moral norms in their day-to-day practice.

By participating in this research, WaterAid is demonstrating courage in being at the forefront of topical and innovative research within the sector, while reaping benefit from an in-depth analysis of a topic highly relevant to institutional learning.

So, what makes this research relevant? Well, until we have a thorough understanding of NGOs’ morality in action, their moral legitimacy (and the associated benefits of being perceived to be a ‘legitimate’ organisation) will remain threatened. Because NGOs’ legitimacy is specifically moral in nature, this research also holds significance for their applied ethics – understanding moral norms in practice is a crucial first step towards strengthening applied ethics.

The benefits of applied ethics for NGOs

Unsurprisingly, emerging literature demonstrates applied ethics to be essential for seeing moral norms fulfil their intended purpose. Therefore, moving beyond operating at a level of abstract morality to applied ethics is also in the interest of aid effectiveness and value for money.

Not only this, applied ethics has repeatedly been demonstrated to promote ethical practice throughout sectors by improving problem-solving within moral dilemmas, balancing asymmetrical relationships, and mitigating risks of decision-making. Lastly, NGOs might particularly welcome applied ethics for use in negotiations with key stakeholders, such as donors, partners, governments, and regulators. NGOs could use their understanding of applied ethics to push back on requests that undermine their ability to uphold moral norms in practice, and thus threaten their moral legitimacy.

Michael Edwards recently wrote that 'the moral energy and clarity of purpose that marked NGOs’ early years has largely disappeared'. Has it? Given that limited moral analysis has taken place within the NGO sector, this claim is hard to substantiate. Perhaps NGOs’ moral energy is still largely prominent, just not well understood, and thus not communicated.

Either way, NGOs need to start understanding and demonstrating their morality in practice – not only to strengthen and protect their legitimacy, improve aid effectiveness, promote ethical practice, and gain leverage in negotiations, but to maintain relevance in the sector.

Increasingly having to compete with for-profit actors in development, NGOs will need to start articulating what makes them different. Ultimately, what distinguishes NGOs comes back to their legitimacy being primarily morally derived. Hopefully my research can play a small part in equipping NGOs with the knowledge and tools needed to stay and defend the course of their moral cause.

Robyn Waite tweets as @waiterobyn.