“Choosing One’s Commitments to Causes”: A Review of the February 2012 Ethical Inquiry

During the past two weeks, I have attempted to examine, promote, and engage the ethical factors underpinning one’s chosen commitments to causes (as outlined by Leah Igdalsky ’14 in the Ethics Center’s February 2012 Ethical Inquiry). Igdalsky’s Ethical Inquiry attempts to elucidate several rich and complex issues regarding one’s selected path of social justice by juxtaposing and analyzing methods of committing to a cause. The issues discussed include the relative impact of local versus global action, the comparative effects of advocating for one’s own identified group versus demonstrating global justice advocacy, and the relative effectiveness of contributing money versus time to a social justice organization.

As I read the issues presented, several firsthand and secondhand experiences of social justice action came to mind. For instance, the discussion of local versus global justice reminded me of a heated discussion at the Friday night panel in the Millennium Campus Conference in Northeastern (Sept. 16-17, 2012) between Daniel Cordon, Director of Transitional Employment for the nonprofit Haley House Bakery Café in Boston and Maya Cohen, Executive Director of the student-led global health organization GlobeMed. Cordon highlighted the hypocrisy of students seeking to affect global change when they neglected to first face challenges of poverty and inequality in their own backyard. Cohen, in contrast, underscored the fact that dollars go further in developing countries where the need is greater and that solving community issues abroad can help find solutions for local problems at home and vice versa.

It became readily apparent, however, that criticizing one method in favor of another was an unproductive and unhealthy conversation as both are worthy paths that deserve equal fervor and attention. When I asked Brandeis professor and RESULTS Boston Global Leader Cynthia Tschampl about this dilemma, she gave me this piece of advice (quoting American theologian Frederick Buechner): “vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need”. One may discover their vocation through a series of “a-ha moments” that expose them to issues (local or global) that inspire them to act. Brandeis Heller School Professor Sarita Bhalotra encountered her “pivotal experience” when she went to medical college in India and was for the first time exposed to the dire conditions in which the majority of India actually lived. These experiences shaped her vocation to study medicine and health policy and teach students about global health care delivery as it relates to social inequities.

In her discussion of in-group help vs. supporting foreign groups, Igdalsky also brings up several valid points. For instance, when she states how helping one’s own group is often beneficial because the individual already is aware of the group’s dynamics and needs, I was reminded of a fellow intern during my global health service trip to Venezuela last year. Because she was Venezuelan herself, she was able to infer local customs and language better than us, giving our otherwise foreign group greater legitimacy in the eyes of the local community. On the other hand, striking a balance between supporting one’s own native or local community and pursuing global justice is a responsibility of the informed global citizen. Professor Tschampl advised me to keep in mind that one’s commitment to local and global actions changes as one’s obligations evolve through life’s various stages. She describes how as long as she was single, she could contribute more than 10 hours a week to groups working against local and global poverty, but as she begins to start a family, she will have to alter her time commitment to these causes and contribute in other ways.

In the section “How to Help? Money vs. Time”, Professor Tschampl agrees somewhat with Igdalsky’s assertion that foreign aid to developing countries can create opportunities for misuse. However, she disagrees with the contention (which cites a 2006 report by the National Academy of Public Administration called Why Foreign Aid to Haiti Failed) that the Haitian government should be blamed for its mishandling of the “billions” of dollars in foreign aid prior to the earthquake in 2010. The source cited in the inquiry claims that the presidential election in 2000 won by Jean-Bertrand Aristide had a participation rate of only 5% by registered Haitian voters. However, according to several sources (such as Melinda Miles and Eugene Charles’ book Let Haiti Live and the International Coalition of Independent Observers of the 2000 Haitian election), the participation rate was closer to 60% and the election of Aristide was deemed free and fair.

As a result of skewed U.S. opinion that the election was a fraud, the Bush administration led a crippling embargo on the Haitian government in 2000 that impeded improvements in education, roads, health care and water supplies (according to Tracy Kidder’s 2004 New York Times article “Why Aristide Should Stay”). Concurrent U.S. policies led by Rep. Hyde and Sen. Helms assured that no aid was provided to the government of Haiti, helping to ensure the ineffectiveness of both “aid” and government  (C. Tschampl, via e-mail, Oct. 7, 2012). After reviewing several sources, it becomes clear that the mishandling of aid was the result of U.S. interference at multiple levels rather than the Haitian government’s misuse of the aid.

Another revision was suggested by RESULTS Educational Fund Advocacy Associate Allyson Goldsmith (Brandeis alum ’10), who proposed that the “How to Help” section should also include advocacy and policy change. This issue is implied in the “More Questions” section, but could be elaborated on further as it is often just as important as direct service or money contributions in changing global and local policies and is an important aspect of the Ethics Center’s work. For instance, the Ethics Center launched Advocacy for Policy Change in 2009 along with the Legal Studies Department at Brandeis, giving undergraduate students the tools to advocate for legislative reform. Students such as Ethan Davis ’11 and Mark Garibyan ’11 were given the opportunity to become educated on local issues such as human trafficking in Massachusetts by speaking with advocacy leaders and calling their Congresspeople about passing important bills (page 16 of the Sept. 2011 Student Report) .

Their advocacy efforts undoubtedly made an impact as Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick finally signed anti-human trafficking legislation into law in Nov. 2011 (H. 3808, “An Act Relative to the Commercial Exploitation of People“). Likewise, global advocacy for legislative policies related to human trafficking is just as important. For instance, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which authorized the State Department to establish global standards for confronting trafficking and slavery, has currently expired and has yet to be renewed by Congress (S. 1301, “Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2011). This issue deserves equal if not greater attention as many agree that human trafficking is modern day slavery (see Pres. Obama’s speech on 9/25/2012 at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting). All in all, the inquiry brought up many interesting ideas and dilemmas, but could be revised to address the above suggestions.

One response to ““Choosing One’s Commitments to Causes”: A Review of the February 2012 Ethical Inquiry”

  1. Devika Raj says:

    Sometimes there are commitments make us in a big trouble. First thing before commitment we need to know the risk factor involved in it

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