Ethics, Leadership, and Evaluation: A Personal Reflection

Beverly Peters, Assistant Professor

When I teach Professional Ethics and Project Leadership at American University's online MS in Measurement & Evaluation, I use case studies to help students apply theoretical material to real-world dilemmas and concerns. I devise assignments that require students to apply principles in ethics and leadership to the challenges that they might face as project leaders.

Most of the dilemmas that I have faced, while not illegal, have questioned my ethical position as an evaluator. Here is one I example from early in my career.

A Cultural Conundrum

I was part of a team in rural Namibia, doing work with a population known as the Himba. The Himba are cattle herders who participate as little as possible in the local monetary economy. I would stay one week and then write a report providing recommendations to a donor's multisectoral program.

After several days in the village, a colleague came to me with what she felt was disturbing news. One of the elders had told her that the world was flat. After some inquiries, I discovered this is a common cultural belief amongst the Himba. They believed the earth was flat and that it would be impossible for the earth to be "egg" shaped because all the people would fall off.

My colleagues did not agree on how to handle the situation. One felt we needed to teach the Himba that the world was round and explain the concept of gravity. She argued that by knowingly keeping the Himba in the dark, we were hindering the population's growth and progression. Even the government of Namibia wanted to educate the country.

Another felt that telling the Himba the world was round was outside of the responsibility and scope of our organization. She felt the Himba should know, but we should not be the ones to tell them.

Yet another colleague felt that since the Himba elders with whom he talked wanted to remain traditional, the shape of the earth should not be discussed at all.

Exploring Multi-Faceted Stakeholder Perspectives

On the surface, this may look like a benign dilemma without an ethical dimension. But as an international development worker and the project leader, I knew it went deeper than that. I needed to think through my core values and beliefs, as well as those of my organization, to give perspective to any decisions I made. I am an ethnographer with methodological training and ethnographers study other cultures without making interventions. The organization for which I worked respected local culture but also aimed to support education and gender programs that would inevitably impact culture.

I also had to consider the core values of the Himba. Given the natural environment of the Kaokoveld, where the Himba live, this interpretation of a flat world made perfect sense to me. The land in every direction was flat. The Himba in the village had never seen a hill or a mountain. I knew the core values of the Himba would be challenged if my team members disclosed that the world was round.

And what of the ramifications, especially since my organization was only with the Himba for a week? Would my organization be responsible for debunking one of the Himba's central beliefs? Which stakeholders amongst the Himba profited from this belief? How would they be affected by my decision? What were the threats to and opportunities for my organization's programming? What would be the expected and unexpected consequences of this decision and my actions?

Finding Ethical Solutions

After meeting with members of the local Ministry of Education and discovering they were working on education programs to enroll children in school, my decision was essentially made for me. School teachers would be teaching geography and physics in the coming months and years. This solution was acceptable to all my employees.

While you will most likely not face a "world is flat" dilemma in the workplace or even an Enron situation, you may face difficult situations.

Truthfully, this scenario also caused some soul searching for my team and the organization at large. Many people started to ask about the interventions that we made as an organization, and the decisions that governments and nongovernmental organizations oftentimes make for populations without the consent of the local people.

This was yet another ethical dilemma for us to consider.

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