International NGO Health Programs in a Non-Ideal World: Imperialism, Respect & Procedural Justice

In E. Emanuel J. Millum (ed.), Global Justice and Bioethics. Oxford University Press. pp. 213-240 (2012)
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Many people in the developing world access essential health services either partially or primarily through programs run by international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). Given that such programs are typically designed and run by Westerners, and funded by Western countries and their citizens, it is not surprising that such programs are regarded by many as vehicles for Western cultural imperialism. In this chapter, I consider this phenomenon as it emerges in the context of development and humanitarian aid programs, particularly those delivering medical treatment, nutrition and access to clean water. I argue that in order to avoid contributing to cultural imperialism, INGOs have a duty to ensure that they do not offer services in a way that requires their beneficiaries to choose between accessing essential health services and violating or otherwise undermining traditional norms and practices which have significance for their beneficiaries. Following Onora O'Neill, I argue that offers requiring such a choice are effectively “unrefuseable” and so coercive. INGOs therefore, must avoid making such offers, and can accomplish this by means of an iterated process of reciprocal negotiation under conditions of equality, in which both the INGOs’ and the beneficiaries’ deep values and concerns play a role. In essence, I claim that employing such a process is a requirement of procedural justice, given the non-ideal conditions in which INGOs must operate.

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Lisa Fuller
University of Toronto, St. George Campus (PhD)


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