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Much of your analysis is at a high level, focusing on World Bank or government interventions in other countries. Does this idea of rights apply to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and even to small nonprofit efforts?

The larger the NGO, the more these issues are serious and relevant. Also, a large NGO that has a major operation in a small country could be affecting the political outcome in that country, maybe indirectly lending support to an oppressive autocrat in power.

And even with a small NGO, you want to make sure that you are respecting the rights and dignity of the people you're working with and allowing them to choose what's happening under your project. That you're not forcing your project on them. It's very much based on their consent, their choice of what they want to happen. They need to be included in some important way in the project design and implementation.

And whether a big NGO or working on a small scale, in development there is often a power differential between the actors and those being, well, acted upon.

I'm glad you mentioned power. In development we tend to ignore the question: Who has the power?

That's another way of stating the infeasibility of moral neutrality. We are never neutral because there are always power implications of what we're doing. By acting in an applied way in a poor society, first of all, as you pointed out, we, the NGOs or the philanthropists, have a lot of power ourselves. We have to choose how to use that power in a way that does not make the people we're trying to help have less power or feel like something is being imposed on them. We also have to be sure our power is not in an alliance that will ripple out to support an oppressive power elsewhere in the society.

And an oppressive power is not always just a national dictator. It could also be local elites who are oppressing the more powerless victims. Sensitivity to power requires always trying to identify who has the power, and trying to help the powerless to avoid being victimized by those in power.

Have you seen any difference of between faith-based and non-faith-based NGOs, whether for good or ill, in this respect?

I don't have enough detailed knowledge of all the NGOs to give a good answer to that question. But one thing that comes to mind is the role of faith more generally in economics, which I think could have some implications for the NGO world. There's been good research by economists that suggest there are real, positive impacts of believing in God on many outcomes at the individual and family level.

There could be many reasons for that. One reason that we could apply to NGOs is that there is a struggle to get NGOs to do good things when there's no one observing whether they are, in fact, doing good things or not. I think one way in which a belief in a just God helps is that you have the feeling that even when no human actor is watching, God is watching you and that motivates you to good things.

This sounds like a really weird mash-up of economics theories with belief in God. But it solves a problem an economist would call "the principal–agent problem"—that a principal wants someone to do good things and then finds an agent to do those things on his or her behalf. This becomes a problem if the principal cannot observe whether the agent is doing what they want or not.

If the agent believes that God is watching, that does help.

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