Guest Column: The Importance of Guiding Ethics and Principles for International Agricultural Development

Amy Alesch

Last year, Iowa State students attempted to engage university leaders in a discussion concerning the ethical implications of partnering with Regent Rastetter’s AgriSol corporation in an international agriculture development project in Tanzania.

Our concerns were published in an Iowa State Daily guest column dated April 20, 2012. In response to these concerns, university leaders organized a forum on Nov. 9, 2012 titled “Guiding Principles in International Agricultural Development: The Sustainable Rural Livelihoods Model.” 

At this forum, university faculty, students, and community members discussed the ethics and implications of international agricultural development. Our concerns were addressed by Dean Acker, who communicated that the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences was beginning to develop such guidelines. These guidelines would be based on the Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods model and would incorporate lessons learned from other universities and organizations. These guidelines are intended to give a framework for future university projects.

On December 5th, at a forum with students on the ISU campus, President Leath addressed a question specifically asking about the progress of these guidelines by saying he would follow-up with Dean Wendy Wintersteen but agreed that they were needed because AgriSol was “a black-eye” for the university. As the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences plans future work in international agricultural development, what lessons have been learned through the experiences of the past year?

At a campus seminar on Feb. 13, Dr. Mark Westgate, the Director of the Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods, shared that the center plans to build upon current ISU research and existing funding to expand their program in Asia and South America. Given the recent events at Iowa State and the discussion at last fall’s forum, we were disappointed to hear he does not think guidelines need to be created or shared. 

Indeed, he directly said to a crowd of 60 students, faculty, and staff that perhaps last fall’s forum was intended to, in his words, “placate” our concerns. Westgate argued that the same guidelines governing our work as students and faculty in Iowa or in other parts of the United States are sufficient for international agricultural development, noting that guidelines may not be followed even when they are in place.

We understand that guidelines do not equate perfect conduct, nor are they the only way to codify an agreed-upon framework for action. However, guidelines do illustrate that we have thought collectively as an academic community about the connection of our mission as a university and how this ties into our international work, particularly when it comes to evaluating ethical issues based on conflicts of interest.

These conflicts of interest can occur any time a public institute partners with a private entity. Westgate’s argument and defensiveness concern us. We know that international development work comes with a great deal more responsibility than work within our state or within the U.S., especially given the asymmetries of power, colonial history, and western institutional culture inherent in such work. 

Navigating these asymmetries in respectful and culturally-appropriate ways, through a participatory approach, will be improved by the process of reflection and dialogue involved in creating guiding principles and ethics. Given the reputation and scope of Iowa State’s research, it further makes sense that these guidelines should be written, shared and evolve as we continue to build our experience and learn from past lessons.

Acker has updated us that he continues to make progress on these guidelines, and that a draft will be shared in late spring with the hopes of its finalization by the start of fall semester 2013. Let’s learn from our past missteps and continue to discuss and share questions regarding ethics and principles, as researchers, staff, faculty and students to increase dialogue and transparency in our work on campus and beyond.