Dilemma of ‘dirty hands’

I love Rodrik jargon (think ‘political trilemma’). The ‘dilemma of dirty hands‘ is an extension of his views on engaging with Qaddafi and other such authoritarian leaders. In a previous post on the Libya-LSE mess, I had two questions – 
  • How closely should universities work with governments – while advising governments on policy, when does one go from being a policy advocate to being an instrument of government policy? 
  • Should we expect academic institutions to have better foresight? Is that even possible when it comes to politics and power?

The general question is applicable to individual academics/consultants and Rodrik answers pragmatically – 

You must convince yourself (and others) that your help is sought not to legitimize the regime but to further ordinary citizens’ interests, that there is transparency with regard to the financial relationship (if any), and that you constantly re-evaluate your entanglement to prevent “mission creep”

Transparency is of paramount importance. Such engagements must not just be foot-notes. They should be acknowledged and explained. Rodrik also acknowledges the limitations of the unforeseeable future

But it is much easier to reach such judgments with hindsight. Were the moral overtones of dealing with the Qaddafis so obvious before the Arab revolutions spread to Libya? Or to pose the question more broadly, is it so clear that advisers should always steer clear of dictatorial regimes?

Qaddafis are probably not the best  example, but there isn’t a dearth of other leaders/regimes that have changed or risk changing over time. Rodrik refers to China and Ethiopia in his piece. 


This is a choice local academics have to make for themselves as well, working on their own. Can they choose not to engage with their governments – irrespective of how the regimes they live under are – although the possibility of a truly authoritarian regime permitting/prompting independent academic work seems quite unlikely. Even in normal times, local academics and think-tanks have to be wary of their political engagements so they are not perceived to be biased or favouring one political party over another. But these organisations survive and are vital in their respective countries’ policy processes. 


Coming back to the ‘dilemma of dirty hands’ – not everyone has the luxury of hindsight and in many circumstances, it can be a slippery slope. What might be a way out? Would it work if western universities/think-tanks/consultancies work only with their counterparts in developing countries. So an LSE will work directly with say, a University of Libya or Misurata University, or with other non-governmental organisations – not only avoiding having to make political choices (only to some extent, of course), but also contributing to a stronger local capacity in organisations that could affect policy processes. And if a government doesn’t allow that, it would be a clear sign that something is not quite right.

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