Wednesday, March 28, 2012

first, do no harm

The Hippocratic Oath is most often associated with doctors. Upon the commencement of a doctor's career, he or she agrees that he or she will practice medicine ethically. The first rule of which is "do no harm."

This phrase has been bouncing around my brain for the past several weeks. I find myself seeking to apply it or at least question its applicability to various situations I am facing. And, no, you did not miss the memo. I am not a doctor, nor do I have any plans to become one. I am talking about development, as in human development, rural development, professional development, global development.

First, do no harm.

I want to preface what I am about to write with an admission of my own ignorance. I do not have all the answers. I am actually quite doubtful that I have any of the answers. I am not an expert. I am not the first person to think these ideas. I do not think myself better than others, though in some areas I do feel I may be more enlightened or informed than some others. Truth be told, I am just a farmer's daughter from rural Indiana who naively hopped on a plane to Cambodia thinking she could make a difference in the world. Maybe I am. Maybe I'm not. But, that's not the point.

The point is that I have been spending a lot of time and effort looking at development. My heart's desire is to invest in local people to assist them in creating a greater "toolbox" of skills with which they can create a better environment for their fellow countrymen. And, I would just like to say that is no easy task. It is hard. It requires thoughtful strategy and planning. It requires maintaining a long-term perspective. It requires letting go of my own ideas (which are of course brilliant) in order to defer to a more workable, contextually-relevant model. It requires research. It requires asking questions. It requires listening to the answers to those questions. And, yes, it requires compassion and empathy and a heart for justice.

But, in my observations (I am a natural observer), I have witnessed a lot of people who possess the latter (compassion, empathy, a heart for justice) who have not taken into account any of the former ideals necessary for development. These people come in a variety of forms. Some of them are bulldozers, knocking down everything in their path to the "grassroots" to rebuild something "from the ground up," so that it looks the exact way they want it to. Forget cultural relevancy or long-term sustainability. Some of them are a bit flower child-esque, encouraging everyone to just sit in a circle and "love" away the problems. I absolutely agree that "love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8), but I am not sure sitting in a circle, holding hands and singing is necessarily the epitome of "love." Some of them are simply bleeding hearts, so moved by atrocities and injustices that they can think of nothing else but helping the poor lost and abused children of the world because they need hugs and hope and happiness. (I will admit that this is the category I probably fell into, but I am moving on from that as my perspective has shifted.) I am sure there are many other types as well. And, the truth is that the vast majority of these people are well-meaning and good-intentioned. I do not honestly think that people would intentionally start a "development" project that they believed to be hurtful or harmful or unsustainable or completely selfish.

However, I think many people start before asking any questions and before considering the principle "first, do no harm."

You may be asking, "How can well-meaning, good-intentioned people with bleeding hearts do harm?"

Well, unfortunately, they can do in a million ways. They do it by giving things away for free that local people make and sell for their livelihood. It is pretty difficult to compete with free. They do it by forcing local staff to defer to foreigners for all important decisions. How do you develop decision-making skills when you never get to make one? They do it by exaggerating reality so that unknowing donors will finance their short-sighted projects. And, the truth is that I know I have done it. And, I am sorry for it. I have done harm. Lots of it. Unintentionally. Actually, with the best of intentions, but it turned out for harm, nonetheless.

And, so I encourage you--first, do no harm.
But, if it's too late for that--apologize, repent, educate yourself, and seek to do no further harm. That's what I am working toward...

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