Avoid Doing More Harm than Good: 4 Questions to Ask

For those of us involved in humanitarian efforts and seeking good social change in this world, there is perhaps nothing more frustrating or even devastating than to realize a project we initiated, a grant we enabled or even a mission trip in which we participated did more harm than good. I believe that author, speaker, and Equitas board member, Andy Crouch speaks to this when in a recent interview he challenged leaders with the thought that, “We either contemplate or we exploit.”

These are crucial words for those of us who are attempting to affect social change. Sometimes we are so enthralled with possibilities, potential “successes” or meeting our own objectives that we do not always think through the possible inadvertent consequences and exploitation. There are perhaps few things worse than unintentionally exploiting the poor, vulnerable and oppressed as a means to accomplish our good intentioned but malformed ends.

In reflecting on this, four questions emerged as I thought through how we attempt to minimize “doing more harm than good” when considering a project. My field is philanthropy, but I believe these questions are transferable to a variety of humanitarian efforts, including church mission trips. While these certainly are not the only questions that need to be asked before engaging a potential project or task, here are four questions you might want to consider for starters:

1.    Is this even wanted or needed? How many “good” projects turn out to be unhelpful because a true assessment was not honestly performed? The worse case scenario is when the community did not want the intended “good thing” and the “good thing” in hindsight brought no real value. Unfortunately the third world is littered with such projects. One helpful tool in thinking through needs assessment is Tearfund’s Project Management Cycle manual found here.

2.    What motives are involved? This includes my motives as well as the motives of others who are involved. Perhaps one of the most difficult things to assess is one’s own motives but this is vital. I may be wanting success in addressing an issue so badly that without checking my motives, I’m willing to fall for the pitch or grab a hold of flashy effort that makes me feel good but really does little tangible good. I also may want to be able to say I participated in “x” knowing it’s getting a lot of attention. It’s far too easy to listen to a few who will tell you what you want to hear than to truly survey the context and reflect on whether or not this will truly bring good social change or benefit.

Additionally, I must ask about the motives of others involved in the effort. Examples here are numerous, all the way from the pure at heart to the quintessential con artist. Most difficult to assess are those who are neither. Recently, a colleague and I spent a few hours in a third world country trying to reason with a pretty good guy who had a really bad idea and who’s motives were mixed. He wanted to both help a certain segment of vulnerable people and make a decent living at it. It was actually hard to tell which was the greater priority. It seemed though that his mixed motivations were blurring his ability to honestly assess the bad idea.

3.    Am I listening to enough voices? Obviously those proposing the project or inviting you to come are for it but do you have a good understanding of context through learning from multiple voices? Often times our work can have the unintended consequences of displacing or disempowering indigenous leaders or stakeholders when we don’t ask this question. Even worse we might even empower the wrong group or persons. I think here of a medical missions organization that unintentionally linked to a very fundamentalist group to distribute their supplies in country. This resulted in hegemony for the group as gatekeepers and a grossly inadequate distribution of supplies. In time they heard from enough “voices” on the ground that helped them correct the problem. Rarely does a project make sense when there are no indigenous grassroots voices involved. Conversely, the greater the amount of trusted voices, the less likely the odds of doing more harm than good.

4.    Am I thinking far enough? Those in my field are notorious for falling short on this one and I worry that I have fallen short here from time to time as well. We demand measured outcomes and want to see them materialize yesterday. We prefer to fund projects that can produce an immediate or short-range bang for the buck. The danger in this is that if we aren’t careful, we can have the cumulative effect of producing short-term “good” at the expense of long-term harm. Social change for the good is most often slow and needs long range vision. It most often requires committed partnerships that through mutually beneficial relationships will labor together for a cause or change in which all are passionate. Participating this way checks our motives and our vision. It’s easy to fly in, do something that seems good in the moment, and fly out without ever assessing, “Does it truly make a difference in the long run?” It is much more difficult to ask the questions, build true partnerships, commit to causes and truly seek after long term good. I suppose then, it depends on what we want…back to our motives.

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