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Harvard professor Michael Sandel asks us to ‘awaken the restlessness of reason, and see where it might lead….’ Veena Vasista FRSA argues for a 21st century framework for more reflective, deliberative and ethical policymaking.

In June 2011, I saw a picture of a Xingu River Peoples' Chief sobbing upon hearing that the news that the President of Brazil had approved the Belo Monte dam project. Social and environmental justice activists have been campaigning against the dam since it was first proposed in the 1970s.

Campaigns have mitigated its potential harm but a significant destructive impact still remains: the dam will displace anywhere from 20,000 (official statistics) to 40,000 (according to social justice activists) indigenous peoples and have an immeasurable impact on plant and animal life.

The dam controversy highlights why we need a 21st century framework for more reflective and deliberative policymaking: local, national and global. Such a framework must move us beyond simplistic for or against arguments. Instead it must embrace pluralism and delve into grey areas, challenging us to engage actively with more rigorous and open deliberation of our decision-making principles, our moral and religious convictions, our beliefs and assumptions.

The Brazilian government and energy industry have argued in favour of the dam on the basis that it will produce needed electricity for Brazilians and, in turn, stimulate economic growth and employment while decreasing poverty. So the dam is arguably a good thing for a large number of people and represents progress. But to people like myself, the dam seems like an immoral choice: it is unethical to displace the Xingu River peoples and it is wrong to destroy any more of the Amazon. This raises the question: What do we mean by progress?

Politicians and civil society have become trapped in a battle where sides must be chosen; people must be for or against the dam, for progress in Brazil or not, on the side of the Brazilian public, or on the side of the Xingu River peoples. Conventional democratic deliberations have fed the idea that there always must be winners and losers. This narrows the parameters of debate to a single policy option: build a dam or not, and severely stifles creative problem-solving.

The parameters of debate seem to have side-stepped robust engagement with the inevitable and critical grey areas of policymaking: the times when we are faced with multiple and perhaps conflicting interests, needs, values and rights. With the Belo Monte dam project, the Brazilian people are confronted with an understandable desire for equal access to electricity on the one hand, and on the other, a belief (held by some) in the vital importance of preserving the rainforests. They are faced with an approach to poverty reduction that potentially benefits them greatly, but at the cost of threatening the self-determination and livelihood of the Xingu River peoples. Pushed to choose one side or another, it is very unclear if and how politicians and civil society have sought to engage actively in reflecting on these and other significant grey areas or what the Institute for Global Ethics calls right versus right dilemmas.

Thirty years ago, policymakers began with a proposition: we are going to build a dam to generate more electricity, stimulate economic growth and reduce poverty. Since then, it seems the original questions prompting the project in the first place have been lost, for example: How best to tackle poverty in Brazil?

What if instead of a making a proposition policymakers had engaged themselves, Brazilian society and the Xingu River peoples with a range of other reflective questions: How can we work together to bring greater quality of life to people while being respectful of the ecosystem and its inhabitants? What do we mean by quality of life? What is the greater good and what does justice look like? What are our obligations to different communities with respect to autonomy, self-determination, dignity and respect? What do our moral codes tell us about what is the right thing to do?

Whether we are talking about the Belo Monte dam or deliberating national budgets and public services in the UK and the US, we tend to entrap and constrain ourselves. We forget about collaboration and the greater good as we try to win the argument. We stop asking the big questions that help us gain deeper understanding of one another and the complex tensions underlying our decisions . Many people think that opening up deliberations about moral codes and social beliefs and values is what closes arguments down; that these are the seeds of stalemate and deadlock. But the opposite it true. We sidestep open discussion of these topics at our peril.

A framework of the Institute for Global Ethics illustrates how we can expand our individual and collective decision-making processes. First, we can deliberate openly on the nature of our grey areas/right versus right dilemmas. Second, we can actively engage with widely-applied resolution principles, for example Utilitarianism, the Categorical Imperative, the Golden Rule.  Michael Thompson similarly advocates that decision-makers create spaces where multiple stakeholders not only have their perspectives and interests heard, but are supported to engage in open and empathic dialogue.  The dialogue changes from ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ posturing and moves into ‘What is important here and what can we achieve together?’ Both frameworks presume that people are willing not only to listen but also to question their own beliefs, shift their views and work cooperatively for a greater good.

The final decision on the Belo Monte dam having been made only in June 2011, we potentially still have a small window of opportunity to open up the debate by stepping out of a narrowly focused ‘Stop the dam’ mantra and bringing to life a 21st century framework for more reflective, deliberative and ethical policymaking. The end result could actually be a ‘win-win’ solution for us all.

Veena Vasista FRSA works with social changemakers in the US and the UK to expand their leadership and engagement abilities. A mediator and Ethical Fitness® trainer, she specializes in individual and group dynamics involving conflict and sensitive/emotive issues.


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