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The Importance of Being (Pragmatically) Earnest

February 8, 2021

Photo courtesy of the Guardian UK.

When engaging with policy audiences and organizations, how can one be truthful when telling the whole truth may be counterproductive?

This post is part of an occasional series discussing the ethical dilemmas that arise when academics engage with policymakers and the broader public. This series is part of the Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility project of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy, which seeks to make ethical considerations an integral part of policy-relevant research and engagement. The program develops knowledge around, and informs the practice of, responsible engagement so that future generations of academics can engage in the policy world with confidence and clarity. This program is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

One of the best things about academia is that scholars are encouraged, at least in theory, to tell it like it is. Policymakers and organizations have agendas and mandates. Their assessments of the world are always subordinate to (or at least colored by) their desires to change and shape it. The State Department may bend to presidential politics in assessing other countries’ human rights records and generally deny doing so[1], but academics are free to call them on it.

But when engaging or collaborating with policy actors, that freedom may be curtailed. Policy actors, be they individuals or organizations, don’t always want to hear the truth, something Marie Berry and Milli Lake call “inconvenient findings.” This is especially true when it conflicts with causes they are deeply invested in promoting, or facts that, if addressed publicly, would harm their ability to achieve their mission. And some—not all, but some—of those missions are very noble, and may be missions to which the scholar themselves is deeply committed. 

How can one be earnest while also being pragmatic? How can one be truthful when telling the whole truth may be counterproductive?

Setting aside the coup-as-backdrop-to-aerobics viral video, the coup in Myanmar is no laughing matter. The coup seems to have ended a decade-long experiment with democratization that followed a brutal 24-year spell of military rule under the State Peace and Development Council, or SLORC. Major investors like Japanese brewing giant Kirin are pulling out, and many investors are wary of the specter of a return to SLORC-era economic sanctions. A nonviolent resistance movement has sprung up, but the risk of a highly repressive crackdown is imminent.

Several years ago, I was part of the Asian Development Bank’s country diagnostic team for Myanmar (not Burma, a distinction that is, as Tom Pepinksy laid out brilliantly, deeply political). The country had just undergone a momentous three-year period of governance and economic reforms, and the sense at the time was that Myanmar was poised to experience rapid economic growth and an opening of civil society/political space. The Asian Development Bank certainly had a stake in the outcome: the goal of the process was to produce a document that would help identify critical constraints to achieving economic growth and welfare gains. My role was to assess issues like state capacity and resilience of political institutions, as well as governance-based challenges to growth.

At the time, I was genuinely somewhat hopeful. But I was deeply concerned about a host of fundamental issues, not the least of which were the number and diversity of armed movements in the country, the combination of democratic elections with highly factionalized parties, the independence of the military from civilian rule, and military/ex-military dominance of the bureaucracy. These were all red flags suggesting a return to authoritarian or at least highly repressive rule was likely. And events—the coup, but also the unchecked repression of the Royhinga minority and then-State Counsellor Aan San Suu Kyi’s defense thereof—have unfortunately demonstrated those concerns were valid.

Yet my contributions to the resulting report on governance challenges were less strident than my independent assessment would have been. I told the truth: I believed everything I said, and was proud of the assessments of more anodyne challenges like reform of promotion and compensation practices in the bureaucracy, creation of interagency mechanisms for policy coordination, and the like. I did not lie, prosocially or otherwise

But I did not tell my whole truth. I pulled punches. And in doing so, the assessment did not represent my full assessment of the risks there. Doing so would likely have compromised the shared larger goal of trying to help promote economic development in a nascent democracy that was among the poorest countries in Southeast Asia and where even today nearly a third of children experience stunting. It would have likely also compromised the ADB’s ability to work with the Myanma government. As a consultant, doing so would have been both inappropriate and irresponsible.

Did I do the right thing? I don’t know. I still don’t. I think I did. I thought helping in a tiny way to bring about economic development would help consolidate democracy and lift people out of poverty. I may have been wrong. I may have been naïve.

I do know this: I was very unprepared to make that call. Graduate school had set me up well to assess these governance issues. It set me up so that I could engage meaningfully. But it did not prepare me to answer a more fundamental question: should I engage, and under what terms? 

Academics, especially early career academics, face increasing pressure and encouragement to engage with policymakers and in the policy process. Yet, academics receive little training about the ethical considerations that arise from these activities. 

From my experience, these issues were never openly discussed in graduate school. The best one could hope for is that you would fall in with someone who had experience navigating these waters. For me, Steph Haggard was that person. But I got exceptionally lucky. And even still, when confronted with such decisions, the path forward is often uncertain.

The Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility project is designed to make ethical considerations an integral part of policy-relevant research and engagement. The program develops knowledge around, and informs the practice of, responsible engagement so that future generations of academics can engage in the policy world with confidence and clarity.

We are not holding ourselves out as paragons of virtue, nor are we claiming to have the one true perspective on responsible engagement. We are simply trying to open up space for these conversations. The time to have these conversations is not once the dilemmas are right in front of us.

[1] The kicker here being Secretary Pompeo’s statement that “The 44th annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices provide carefully researched, factual, and objective [emphasis mine] information on actions foreign governments are taking – or not taking – to demonstrate observance of and respect for internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

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Cullen Hendrix is Professor and Director of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. His current projects explore conflict and cooperation around natural resources and the ethics of policy engagement by academic researchers.