Handbook on Ethical Issues

Case 19: Backstage Maneuvers

Laila Ibrahim, a medical anthropologist of Egyptian extraction who had spent two years doing fieldwork in Egypt, was hired as a consultant by the United States-Egypt Institute (USEI), a nonprofit institute established to improve relations between the two countries. Her work involved setting up and implementing a program for visiting Egyptian physicians who spent a year in the United States observing American medical techniques. The project, funded by the Health and Development Foundation (HDF), a small private foundation, is now seeking $170,000 from HDF for its third and final year.

Laila is also on the board of directors of Women and Children First (WCF), a small nonprofit organization that supports projects to improve the health of women and children all over the world. Recently the organization was approached by Egyptian officials, interested in setting up a project to improve maternal and child health in Upper Egypt. Upon the request of the board and executive director of WCF, Laila visited the sites, met the proposed project personnel, and assessed the feasibility of success. WCF then paid her to prepare a grant proposal for HDF, whose executive director had expressed interest in the project.

The president of USEI knew that WCF was seeking funds from HDF, the same foundation that supported the USEI project. He also knew that Laila was on the board of WCF, but he did not know that she had already met with the executive director of HDF and, upon his request, was preparing to submit a grant proposal for the WCF project. The president of USEI told Laila that HDF had just requested that he cut his application for funds in half for the final year of the visiting physician program; he asked if WCF could delay applying to HDF for a year, so that the two requests would not compete with each other.

The executive directors of HDF and WCF do not want to wait. Moreover, the Egyptian officials have begun their bureaucratic arrangements (including a leave of absence from teaching responsibilities for the head of the proposed project).

What should Laila do? (1) Tell the board and executive director of WCF that their project represents a conflict of interest for her and that someone else from WCF should work on the proposal? (But no one else really knows the situation; at this point, only she can do it properly.) (2) Ask WCF and the Egyptian officials if they can hold off for a year? (3) Ask the executive director of WCF if they can submit the proposal to another foundation? (But HDF is eager to fund the project, which will cost about $225,000, and it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to find another organization with sufficient interest and funds.) (4) Submit the WCF proposal to HDF, divulging as little as possible to the president of USEI about her involvement? (But the president would probably never trust or hire her again.) (5) Talk to the executive director of HDF, tell him she has a problem and ask his advice?

Comment

M. G. Trend, Senior Research Analyst, Auburn University Technical Assistance Center:

The president of USEI is out-of-line. He assumes that his project will receive money for additional operations, if only the folks at WCF can be persuaded to postpone or drop their request for funding from the same foundation. Maybe this desperate ploy will even work, though I doubt it.

Ibrahim would be foolish to allow herself to be gulled into helping with zany backstage maneuvers. Presumably, her reputation as a consultant rests upon her expertise, and not upon her willingness to try to "wire" proposals for clients.

I'd decline to do the president's bidding, and I'd also mention the problem to the executive director of HDF. As things stand now, Ibrahim doesn't have a conflict of interest or any ethical dilemma that I can see. Understandably she doesn't want to offend the president of USEI. But if it comes down to either doing that or risk losing the regard of the other parties in this problem, the choice ought to be easy enough for her to make.

Comment

Dorothea J. Theodoratus, California State University, Sacramento, and Clinton M. Blount, Theodoratus Cultural Research:

This is a dangerous situation that might result in far-reaching antagonism and competition. The funding agency, HDF, may be attempting to accommodate two worthy programs that are linked both geographically and in area of action. The two programs appear already to be in competition, and the president of USEI sees WCF as the spoiler in USEI's request for a final year of funding (although it is not clear if HDF has told him that the WCF request is the reason he has been asked to reduce his funding request). Antagonism between programs may serve to irritate a generous sponsor, and there is the danger that these and future programs will suffer. Ibrahim's position with the USEI program, while important both personally and professionally, certainly seems less important than ensuring that the worthwhile goals of both programs are met.

Of the options offered above, (5) comes closest to a solution. If Ibrahim hides her involvement (4) or requests WCF to have someone else prepare the proposal (1), she has not attempted to solve the basic dilemma. Open communication between the three parties is required, especially if WCF and USEI are beginning to view each other as competitors for the same funding. Ibrahim's acquaintance with the director of the funding agency is the starting point. She should determine if, in fact, the two programs are in competition. If they are not, USEI should be informed by the sponsor of the reasons for the funding reduction, and Ibrahim is free to pursue both projects. If they are competing, the funding agency should explain its reasons to Ibrahim, WCF, and USEI. The sponsor might be operating with misinformation about the goals of the two projects, and a change in the foundation's strategy might develop. If this dialogue does not produce a solution, Ibrahim has the option of going to the board of WCF and asking them to seek alternate funding (perhaps for the first year) or waiting a year to submit the proposal to the funding agency. If all parties are intractable, Ibrahim should consider her commitment to the completion of an existing program and ask to be released by WCF from what has essentially become a competitive bid for funds.