10. International cooperation

10. International cooperation


10.1: Unforeseen consequences of cooperation with developer in China
10.2: Restricted freedom of movement during field trip to China
10.3: Students invite controversial international company to NTNU’s career fair, KarriereDagene


Case 10.1: Unforeseen consequences of cooperation with developer in China

NTNU researchers help a Chinese developer to assemble a team of Norwegian architects to participate in an architectural competition for the development of a facility for tourists around the ruins of buildings from the Tang Dynasty. There are 40 000 people living in the area, many of them poor immigrants from rural areas. They live there legally, and the settlement dates back to the 19th century. The NTNU team gains an opportunity to conduct research in all phases of a large project that includes urban development, conservation, and social issues as well as design. Soon after submission of the project proposal, it emerges that the developer has forcibly relocated the residents and cleared the area. NTNU and the Norwegian team of architects are offered assignments that form part of the project, and NTNU’s people still have the opportunity to serve as advisers and to conduct research. NTNU’s people criticize the forced relocation of 40 000 people. They consider making their stance clear by distancing themselves from further involvement in the project, which they expect will be noticed by the stakeholders involved on the Chinese side. This is weighed against continuing their involvement, which would enable them to present their arguments within the development project while having some influence over the further development.

Three professors from the local university are invited to an exhibition on the project at the NTNU Museum of Natural History and Archaeology. They are NTNU’s partners and have participated in the project.

Questions: One must assume that the public Norwegian exhibition of the project will be noticed by Chinese authorities. What obligations does NTNU’s group have to the participating professors as guests of Norway and the exhibition?

General comment: NTNU has ever stronger commitments to international cooperation. In recent years, several ethical issues related to this type of collaborative project have been discussed both in the media and internally at NTNU. This case involves the classic voice or exit dilemma: whether people should stay involved in projects that they find ethically questionable, so that they can air their views (voice), or whether leaving the collaboration (exit) would be a better way to exert influence. In this type of situation, no answer is universally valid – the issues must be assessed from case to case. The attitude of NTNU’s leadership is to follow official Norwegian policy on cooperation, and in other respects to leave this type of question to the conscience of the individual researcher.

Comments from the pilot testers: It is not possible to provide academically grounded guidelines for how culturally relativistic one should be. Methodological cultural relativism in cultural research does not imply embracing local rationalities. On the contrary, academic self-reflection will reveal that cultural research, here within anthropology, is part of the project of modernity: establishing commensurate yardsticks that capture cultural variation in a set of analytical concepts. Cultural research is one of several ways to make the world unified and coherent. The concept of the unity of humanity is therefore a premise that is at least implicit. A concept of autonomy is also embodied in such a premise: cultural autonomy and individual autonomy (which may conflict with each other). Individual autonomy is an absolute ideal in modern ethics. For example, caste systems can be understood through their internal logic and even their aesthetic form, but they cannot be ascribed moral and political legitimacy.


Case 10.2: Restricted freedom of expression during field trip in China

As part of a semester project on housing needs, infrastructure and conservation considerations, teaching staff from NTNU travel to China together with about 20 students. They have planned to visit two villages to study requirements and plan solutions, by interviewing villagers among other approaches. After their arrival in China, national authorities forbid them to visit the villages. The authorities believe that the conditions there are too volatile, because the local population fear that they will have to move away from their homes. The assessment is that a visit from abroad might worsen the situation. After negotiations, the group from NTNU is allowed to enter on condition that they do not take up issues related to resettlement of people. The group also includes Chinese students who act as interpreters. Naturally, NTNU’s teaching staff are not enthusiastic about the restrictions, but must consider both the informants and the Chinese students. A further consideration is to maintain a good relationship with Chinese authorities with a view to future teaching programmes.

Question 1: Free research and teaching are threatened by such serious restrictions on freedom of speech. Should this part of the course be carried out?

Question 2: It must be assumed that anxious villagers will talk about the risk of resettlement if the visit takes place. What responsibility do NTNU’s people take on in this context? ?

General comment: Cooperation with totalitarian regimes without freedom of speech creates ethical challenges for NTNU employees. In cooperation with other cultures, must we perhaps show a certain degree of tolerance towards restrictions of fundamental rights that we would never have accepted here at home? So far, considerations about what kind of restrictions one should tolerate have been left to the individual researcher and the individual research groups. One question is whether NTNU as an institution should also take a stand on such issues, beyond complying with official Norwegian policy.

Comments from the pilot testers: : If one is going to work within systems that do not recognize modern forms of individual autonomy (human rights, freedom of expression, etc), one probably needs to make pragmatic compromises. Such compromises may be justified by the value of the communication/interaction. The value of such contact must be weighed against the infringements one believes can be identified from case to case. It is difficult to establish principled limits for such compromises, but they must always be part of the discussion.


Case 10.3: Students invite controversial international company to NTNU’s career fair, KarriereDagene

Students organize the career fair KarriereDagene on the NTNU campus and have managed to get a wide range of companies to come. A feather in their cap is that several well-known international companies want to present themselves to students.

On the opening day, the organizer is criticized by an advocacy group for inviting a company engaged in oil exploration in occupied territory, which on this basis has been accused of violating international law. NTNU’s leadership must answer questions about why such a company has been allowed to promote itself at the university, and points out that as a public university NTNU complies with Norwegian foreign policy and national ethical guidelines. The company itself maintains that it has not violated any international laws or regulations through its activities.

The career fair at NTNU is organized by students, who say they have limited resources to check the background of all the companies that participate. The organizers say that they were not aware of the circumstances before they were contacted by the advocacy group, and that they now want to decide on a code of ethics for the career fair.

This type of issue provides a basis for reflection from several perspectives:

Question 1: The organizer’s perspective. As an organizer, could I find myself facing this type of issue where I must take a stand on whether I should invite a controversial company or an employee from a controversial company to participate in an event or a research seminar? How should I approach this?

Question 2: Collective reflection. How should we as students and researchers at NTNU deal with issues involving cooperation with international companies?

Question 3: As an institution, NTNU has a social responsibility. Do Norwegian foreign policy, government ethical guidelines and national guidelines for research ethics provide adequate guidance in the relevant case? How should NTNU handle such cases?

General comment:
This case concerns an event held in cooperation with the business sector, where the company in question is accused of violating international law. The case might also have concerned cooperation with companies accused of human rights violations, severe damage to the natural environment, corruption or illegal arms sales, or it might have concerned public procurement or whether the university should accept donations from a controversial company. Should NTNU as an institution take a stand in such cases beyond prevailing Norwegian policy and the government’s ethical guidelines (public administration, procurements, investments)? In this case, the collaborating party was a Norwegian subsidiary of a controversial international company. Is this a valid argument in this case? In a specific procurement case at the University of Oslo (UiO), the Norwegian Complaints Board for Public Procurement concluded that a Norwegian subsidiary could not be held accountable for the activities of the company in another country. However, these are questions that must be considered from case to case.

In the case of the career fair, the organizers were NTNU students. What responsibility does NTNU have for what takes place on NTNU’s premises under students’ direction? One might also ask how far the students’ responsibility extends in such situations.

In addition, the case raises questions about how to justify one’s standpoints in general: Assertions emerge from various sources, where an advocacy group alleges serious violations of international law, while the company itself believes that no such violations have taken place. To what extent can such sources provide information suitable for justifying an ethical standpoint? And when no definitive guidelines are available, what should one emphasize when one needs to exercise ethical judgement?

Selected sources of ethical guidance

Government guidelines and ethical guidance about cooperation with the business sector are available here:

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website on corporate social responsibility
The Government Pension Fund Global (SPU) has ethical guidelines on responsible investment and lists of companies that are under observation or blacklisted.
The Government's page on responsible investments


Various organizations also provide ethical guidance on companies’ international operations. Here are some examples:

UN Guiding principles on Business and Human Rights
OECD Guidelines for Responsible Business Conduct
Ethical trade and the environment: Framtiden i våre hender
Amnesty International Norway on corporate social responsibility
Ethical Trading Initiative Norway (IEH)