Living well’ while ‘doing good’? (missing) debates on altruism and professionalism in aid work

Fechter, Anne-Meike (2012) ‘Living well’ while ‘doing good’? (missing) debates on altruism and professionalism in aid work. Third World Quarterly, 33 (8). pp. 1475-1491. ISSN 0143-6597

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This paper takes at its starting point public criticism of international aid workers who appear to be ‘doing well out of poverty’. Based on fieldwork in Cambodia, the paper suggests that such public perceptions are mirrored by some aid workers’ uncertainties about the moral dimensions of their own and others’ lifestyles. Significantly, analyses of such public and private unease are largely absent from development ethics, even though comparable professions, such as nursing or social work, having produced substantial work on these issues. I argue that the scarcity of equivalent studies in development studies is partly the result of a tendency to foreground the ‘other’—the world’s poor—while rendering those who deliver aid invisible. Placing ‘aid recipients’ and ‘aid givers’ in separate categories, together with an emphasis on collective rather than individual moral responsibilities, not only makes it difficult to conduct open debates on the role of altruism and professionalism among aid workers, but also indicates how practices of ‘othering’ continue to inform aspects of development theory and practice.

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