Seven Moral Failures

“Making Money Off the Poor?” was a panel to introduce an innovative entrepreneurship network built by CARE Bangladesh at the Skoll World Forum. This system, which provides sustainable employment for poor women, is sturdier than the one-product schemes often typical of social entrepreneurship. We expected, however, that it would draw fire because the women sell a basket of consumer products, rather than a single durable object. Our provocative title intended to invite open discussion. However, my experience was that many criticisms we would hear would be rooted in one or more of seven moral failures.  I blogged for the Skoll Forum to explain what these were:

The Seven Moral Failures that underpin Western judgments about consumer goods in poor communities:

1. Failure to consider long-term economic outcomes. Here the critic cannot see beyond the local acceptance of an innovation deemed “good for the poor” to a near future in which the system built to sell the product is left without further income. Flexible systems, once in place, can often be adapted to a range of uses, rather than living and dying on one purpose-built goal.

2. Failure to understand material conditions. Here, the critic objects to a particular object, but doesn’t think about existing constraints (like insufficient water, expensive transportation, unsafe cooking practices, or inadequate lighting) when arguing for an imagined alternative practice.

3. Failure to respect local priorities. Here the critic’s own values deem local spending patterns irrational or irresponsible, thus belittling customary imperatives, such as a financial obligation to marry a daughter.

4. Failure to consider the bigger picture. An example here would be when a critic focuses narrowly on the rubbish incurred by a sanitary pad or a soap wrapper and fails to consider reproductive or health implications that have larger consequences, even for the environment.

5. Failure to apply standards evenly. A righteous judgment denies the poor an item consumed in enormous quantities by the critic’s own countrymen.

6. Failure to hold paternalistic attitudes in check. The critic implicitly sees the developing nations as a kind of utopian experiment, over which he or she has moral control, and therefore can specify what the poor should not have.

7. Failure to afford the poor their humanity. The late Mary Douglas, a renowned anthropologist, noted that Western economistic thinking allows only physical needs the dignity of being classified as a “necessity.” Prioritizing these “grossly veterinary needs” she argued, imagines people as livestock. Policies that enforce such judgments, far from being spiritually superior, are deeply dehumanizing. It is important to recognize that people, no matter how poor or desperate, must be afforded some small luxuries—the sweetness, scent, or softness of a few well-chosen things—in order to be fully human. The poor should be conceded their own virtues and vanities, the same as the rest of us.

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