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The Reciprocity Principle

Nick Kristof generously quoted a statement from an earlier blog post:

I don’t support autocracy in your society if I don’t want it in my society.

This could also apply to some other common themes of this post:

I won’t invade your country unless I want you to invade mine.

I won’t use exploitative photos of you for fund-raising unless I want you to use exploitative photos of me for fund-raising.

I won’t support my aid agencies forcing you to do something unless I want your aid agencies to force me to do something.

I won’t listen to my celebrities’ opinions on your affairs unless I want you to listen to your celebrities’ opinions on my affairs.

I’m sure the readers can think of other examples of the reciprocity principle, as well as some reasons why it does not ALWAYS apply.

This principle may not be a completely original contribution of the current author.

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  1. Adam Baker wrote:

    Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

    Posted March 1, 2011 at 12:55 am | Permalink
  2. Peter B wrote:

    The Consistency Principle?
     I can have thousands of very big bombs and other very nasty weapons but you can’t
     I can torture prisoners or get others to do it for me but you can’t
     I can consume everything under the sun when it suits me, but you can’t
     It is ok for me to enrich myself at your expense, but you cannot enrich yourself at my expense
     It is ok for me to install and support dictators for very long periods and then, when suddenly that seems not to be working in my interests, to pretend that really what I had been hoping for all along was the flowering of democracy – but you can’t
     It is ok for me to sell very nasty weapons to repressive regimes for very long periods and, when I am caught with my pants down, to behave as if nothing untoward had really happened – but you can’t
     If you are an acquiescent or client state it follows that you are ‘responsible’ and can therefore have as many very nasty weapons as you would like
     I can turn murderous spies into diplomats whenever I want to, but you can’t
     I can be opportunistic and hypocritical at will, but you can’t
     And so on…

    Posted March 1, 2011 at 2:42 am | Permalink
  3. Saundra wrote:

    Alanna Shaikh has a good post on a related topic where she talks about the advertising concept of “eating our own dog food.” Related to development it’s drinking our own Oral Rehydration Salts.

    Posted March 1, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink
  4. Jordan wrote:

    Related to free trade:

    “I will buy things from you if you will buy them from me.”

    Posted March 1, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink
  5. Word_Bandit wrote:

    “I’m sure the readers can think of other examples of the reciprocity principle, as well as some reasons why it does not ALWAYS apply.”

    Because reciprocity is heuristic and illustrative,, but not necessarily a strong formal logical argument …..

    the most interesting subtext here, it seems to me, is to show that strict “logical formulations” can’t always provide the best way of understanding complex problems.

    This “reciprocity principle” seems closer to a function of narrative, which I believe (and have argued) is a better approach to ethics than the more abstract and philosophically rarefied forms.

    Arguments from well-known philosophers propose narrative ethics, but I don’t have the names handy.

    By the way, narrative ethics are strongly associated both with literature and with feminism, because instead of formulating abstract principles, they rely on experience to ground their validity.

    I suppose the most abstract principle here may be a Kantian golden rule, but as presented here, we have “narrative” like assertions.

    Just observations.

    Posted March 1, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  6. Roger McKinney wrote:

    The reciprocity principle is good in general, but what do you do when you need to buy someone’s oil and the nation is run by a ruthless dictator. The reciprocity principle says do without.

    Wisdom says change the things you can change and accept the things you can’t change. We can’t run around overthrowing every petty dictator in the world. And we make the people poorer by refusing to trade with the dictator.

    Kristoff is simply wrong that the US supported many of those dictators. Some we did and some we didn’t. We never supported dictators in the Middle East. Not even the Shah. We merely did business with them as any wise and practical person would do. That is not support. It’s accepting reality.

    Included in the reciprocity principle should be that we won’t impose our values on other cultures by force. That means that if the people of a nation support a dictator, we should respect that. When the people quit supporting him they can overthrow him as they have recently.

    Posted March 1, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink
  7. joe wrote:

    On the contrary, Roger – doing business with the Saudis, Omanis, Egyptians, Iranians, etc et al emphatically is supporting them. Face facts – we either deliberately propped them up, like the Egyptians with millions of military aid dollars, or deliberately looked away because they had something we wanted, like the Saudis and their oil.

    Either way, we are directly responsible for the existence of dictatorships in these countries.

    Posted March 1, 2011 at 11:03 am | Permalink
  8. Jude wrote:

    @Roger, that’s a bit rich…what about Saddam in the 1980s and Osama and his crew in Afghanistan etc. I don’t think we should be ashamed to admit that sometimes, perhaps more often than we like, a countries national interest actually end up working against it’s core values…this is just a fact of life!

    However, equally true, we should never stop learning and thus admit failure and work towards a better “tomorrow” in how we deal with other countries. And, in this regard, the RP is a good pointer in that direction.

    Posted March 1, 2011 at 11:19 am | Permalink
  9. This principle is closer to what’s known as the “silver rule” than the golden rule. One of the earliest formulations is by Confucius in Analects 15:24.

    Posted March 1, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink
  10. terence wrote:

    I won’t use exploitative photos of you for fund-raising unless I want you to use exploitative photos of me for fund-raising.

    Which raises an interesting question: say America was laid was by some sort of cataclysmic event and you and your family ended up in poverty in a refugee camp somewhere over the Mexican border. After a decade or so you’d managed to carve out a niche for yourself of sorts. There was poverty and deprivation as well as risk and powerlessness, but there were also times of dignity and happiness. You’re situation wasn’t without some hope, and you had some agency, yet, nevertheless, life for you and your family was hard.

    One day you were approached by a man from a Botswanan NGO, who asked whether you would mind him taking some photos of you and your family looking forlorn.

    “I’m sorry” he says, “I know this isn’t the totality of your life, but unfortunately these are the type of photos that elicit the most money from people back home. I can’t promise that any of this money will reach you personally but it will help here in this community.”

    What would you do? Say no and in some small way contribute to the Campaign for the Completely Accurate Representation of Poor People. Or say yes and help raise extra money.

    I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this question but I do think it helps illustrate the dilemma faced by those NGOs whom are accused of using ‘poverty porn’.

    Posted March 1, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Permalink
  11. Alex wrote:


    I agree that using “poverty porn” can be an effective marketing tool for getting money in the short-run but the problem is, this is really a long term problem. An argument could be made for relief work, where we have an immediate crises and quick money has to be raised to provide essentials. But this type of marketing can have a negative impact for more long range problems. Too many times have I worked with donors who expect unrealistic results and then get frustrated (usually with the misconception that the ones they help are “ignorant” or “unappreciative”)

    Let’s take an unnamed non-profit that uses this marketing strategy to fund children’s education overseas. They expect reports from the field, and see that despite the money they gave to this “poor african child” he is still failing school. Now you have disillusioned donors who feel that their attempts to be saviors are futile. And further exacerbates the problem because now they misunderstand the actual problem. Development in general needs a better communication stratgey to donors to still have the same powerful effect yet actually encourages programs that work.

    Lastly, I fundamentally disagree with the reciprocity argument. It assumes your situations are inherently equal. If you use this rule, control for the situation. “If I was in your society, living in your condition, and I wouldn’t you to do [something] then I won’t do [something]”

    Posted March 2, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Permalink
  12. terence wrote:

    Thanks Alex,

    I agree on the potential for generating false expectations although I’m not so sure it’s PP that creates this rather than other aspects of the advertising of some NGOs and Donor Agencies.

    I definitely agree with your comment: “Development in general needs a better communication stratgey to donors to still have the same powerful effect yet actually encourages programs that work.”

    And I sort of take your point about power, but the trouble is we live in a world of inevitably unequal power relations. Which is why these dilemmas arise. So I don’t think your reformulation there actually helps shed light on the issue at hand…

    Posted March 2, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

2 Trackbacks

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