The Ethics of designing development programmes

In trying to address this issue a good start would be to understand that meaning assigned to the word Ethics.

The meaning I assign to the word Ethics is derived from the African ideology/philosophy of Ubuntu which is about how people relate to one another, look out for one another and a general acceptance that everybody matters. Iam becuase you are!

That being the case, the ethical thing to do whilst designing development programmes is to make them inclusive from the word go!


This means that you take time to understand the people in the community you intend to work, understand their culture, the importance they assign to things and people in their lives, environment etc

You must establish what their priorities are and if they don’t tie in what you have in mind be prepared to change/adapt yours, after all you would not sell Aspirin to some that wasn’t in pain or had no use for it

What if anything has the community done  to address these priorities?

What challenges face these communities, in other words if whatever you are offering is a priority for the community, why hasn’t it been addressed

It is important to be open and sincere with the people.

Be prepared to learn from them after all you are on their beat and they know it better than you do.

In My Humble Opinion development programmes are not that different from projects elsewhere in the world and the basic reasons they fail is due to poor design and by this I mean the people/end users were left out of the planning stage.

We have several examples of this in Europe, Public Housing design, the Elephant and Castle, the Millenium Dom etc.  I do wonder whether any lessons  if at all are taken away from these programmes or whether we simply export them wholesale to developing regions

The Ethical thing to do therefore is to have due regard for communities and not seek ” to do things” to them because we believe this is what they need!

Remember unless they have said so programmes will not be sustainable due to lack of ownership which comes from being included!

Your views please




Managing Director at Ethnic Supplies
Ida is the curator of AFRICA ON THE BLOG  and founder of Ethnic Supplies a social enterprise working to alleviate poverty amongst East African women involved in textile and handicraft production. She is the Chair person of a community regeneration charity LET THEM HELP THEMSELVES OUT OF POVERTY. Get in touch @idahorner


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  1. says

    I will second the recommendation of the Listening Project; I have found it fascinating and insightful myself. Although the definition of ethics in this article differs slightly from the classic moral connotations, I think the line can get murky in deciding whose ethics play into development decisions: of the community we are serving? the country at large? religious ethics? donors’ ethics? I have read a lot of discussions along these lines recently, but the theory-application gap in these cases tends to create more opportunities to think about these issues.

    • Anonymous says

      Indeed the lines do get blur a bit when it comes to ethics and in fact some argue that most dogooders and that would be nearly all of us in west want to be seen to be doing our bit because it makes us feel good about ourselves without due regard as to whether our efforts are transformational .

      I have indeed heard of countries that sell/trade their responsibilities towards refugees with other countries because they would rather not have refugees in their countries without due regard as to whether this is the best outcome for the refugees.

      It is for that reason that I started with my understanding/or rather the meaning that i personally assign to word Ethics

      • says

        Yup, your definition was certainly what gripped me about this article. Looking forward to reading more of your writing! Best of luck in your endeavors.

  2. says

    Without involving the recipients in the ENTIRE process, these programmes in my view cease to add any ‘real’ value to the community.They do however serve the purpose of the agency which as we know and have seen isn’t always in the best interests of everyone especially the community.

    • Anonymous says

      Oh I agree with you entirely and that message came through loud and clear at the recent VILLAGES IN ACTION CONFERENCE

  3. says

    Ida, this is an excellent post and of course you are right on target again. I was just having a similar conversation with a colleague about this very issue. With any type of design there needs to be interacting with users from the beginning, otherwise the program will have little value to anyone. I really like the model that is presented in IDEO’s Human-Centered Design Toolkit ( The very first phase is “Hear” and involved listening and gathering stories. I think that the conversation you’ve started here needs to be expanded and continued.

  4. says

    Thanks for a great post. I think it is all to easy for people like me to get over enthusiastic in trying to help and actually end up wasting everyone’s time and money. I met you recently at the Care International debate on the role of business in development and was really impressed by your comments and challenges to the panel.
    I continue to enjoy your insights and hope it will help me in both my school build project and fair trade business.
    Thanks again x

    • Anonymous says

      Welcome to Africa on the blog.

      Sadly they are many people who restrict their knowledge/learning about development to books or a single visit to a “poor” country and claim to be experts. The only way to truly learn and I include myself here is by working alongside the community and you will soon find out what works and why.

      As the great and good gathered in Cancum recently to debate the environment were deep in Western Uganda learning first hand why people in a specific location may “degrade” their environment , this is stuff that you cannot read in a book. Here are views on that

      If I cna help in anyway please ask

  5. says

    Hi Ida.

    This is a great post. As someone from the “developed world” I am repeatedly ashamed and embarrassed by the top down ignorance and arrogance of some things that I read by people “in my culture” who are ready to advise and intervene in situations of which then know nothing.

    I am hopeful that people are beginning to be more aware of this – as evidenced in the pre-conference paper for ICTD2010 which I showed to my friends in Nigeria – Research needs from a developing world perspective

    As you point out, “development interventions” are often done as clumsily for home consumption as they are elsewhere, so I suppose that it shouldn’t come as any surprise when the approach is top down.

    I hope it is just ignorance and not cynical self-interest. Tim Unwin raises some interesting points on the thinking behind development in an unpublished paper Africa is indeed rich

    • Anonymous says

      Welcome to Africa on the blog Pamela, I am gutted that I can’t be at ICTD2010. Indeed until programme designers learn that folk on the ground have value to add to the design of programmes we are not going to get very far.

      I read in an article in the Guardian today saying that the poor need Trade Unions, that is OK if they have jobs in the first place, but even then, remember the paper that was presented by the 3 Austrian guys at the Human Computer Interaction conference in Stockholm last year regarding getting the seaweed pickers more wages?

      I will writing a separate blog post about this

    • Anonymous says

      For some in this industry is it about control. Even when they know the right thing to do the urge to control will get the better of them

  6. says

    It was not until this year that I realised my skills as an engineer could impact development positively. I have therefore taken steps to work with organisations that profess to improve the lives of people in developing countries and to eradicate poverty. Now, I am not an expert scientist on all the, sometimes rudimentary, inventions I see rolling off to “help the poor”. And ok, I get that some help is better than none, where there is just no hope of an electrical connection or clean water for communities, but it begs the question, “Are all these humanitarians and PhD’s really helping the communities, or helping themselves?” And it is with great sadness I share a recent discovery in Ghana, about 37% of land grabbed to make way for plantations for the production of jatropha fuel, some form of bio fuel. Which some European companies have come in to produce, and sell to the poor to “help” them? The worst bit is about them displacing farmers, including women farmers whose livlihood have been built from the shea nut and dawa dawa crops. Who asked them whether they wanted to use diofuel to cook, at the expense of their land and livelihood. Apologies for the rant, but I feel like screaming!

    • Anonymous says

      The land issue has become a red herring in Africa- the same debate is underway here in Uganda. Folk are being encouraged to grow pine and big chunks of land are being taken up for this purpose as opposed to food or the mutuba tree that produces the bark cloth..

      Like you I feel like screaming but wonder who will actually hear me


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