From Do No Harm to Today: Reflections on 25 years of impact

09/2023 | Irene Santiago, Neil Levine

“Sometimes it is impossible to know where you are headed without reflecting on where you came from.” – Unknown


In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the publication of Do No Harm by CDA founder Mary B. Anderson and the recent special issue of the journal “Development in Practice” marking that milestone, CDA Board Chair Neil Levine and Advisory Council member Irene Santiago reflect on where we have been over the last three decades, and what needs to happen next to continue building sustainable peace. The DiP special issue features a reflection essay from Mary, as well as articles from current CDA team members Siad Darwish, Ruth Rhoads Allen, and Maureen Moriarty, and from former CDA colleagues Anita Ernstorfer and Michelle Garred. You can access the special issue here.

And we know the Do No Harm community of practice is truly global, so we would love to hear your reflections too!


Irene: As we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the publication of Mary B. Anderson’s book, Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace – Or War, I am awed by the usefulness of the Do No Harm (DNH) framework in many important spaces in our socio-economic-political systems at local, national, and international levels. Originally directed at international NGOs doing humanitarian and conflict-related programs, Do No Harm has now become a powerful framework for addressing the major crises affecting our world. 

Neil: I met Mary Anderson more than a decade ago when she headed CDA and I was director of USAID’s conflict office. I was struck by both the clarity of her analysis and her bravery in following evidence, wherever it led. That’s why her essay “Looking Back to Look Forward” is so important. Mary’s always plain-spoken observations and poignant questioning continues to spur the best thinking by practitioners, academics, and donors — now as it did when the work of DNH and Reflecting on Peace Practice first came out. 

In her most recent essay, Mary issues a twin challenge to our community – how do we better operationalize our approach to conflict sensitivity in a way that is more accountable to people in their communities and to the broader aid community?  

Siad, Ruth, and Maureen (in Darwish et al) do an excellent job of placing CDA’s newest collaborative learning effort in the context of its nearly three decades of learning. Their contribution traces the application of CDA’s learning and tools – systems analysis, adaptive management, the DNH framework, Reflecting on Peace Practice – to building and adapting that work to the emerging field of environmental peacebuilding. I was most impressed by how the authors’ explored the relevance of CDA’s foundational work, and then moved beyond it to identify what is required to understand the different nature of environmental peacebuilding and the challenges or “trigger warnings” that have emerged from CDA’s learning. These include an even greater emphasis on appreciating local context and knowledge, understanding and addressing often-gendered power relations, and the disproportionate impact of conflict and climate change on those at the margins of economic and political life of a community.

I also found Ernstorfer et al perhaps most responsive to Mary’s challenges. Their call for “peace responsiveness” struck me as particularly relevant for donor agencies. The framework for considering individual, programmatic, organizational, and systemic domains is a great place to begin this discussion within donor organizations. And it finds an echo in Darwish et al – a call for work in the environment, in particular, to be scaled across those domains from the local to the national and international. 

Irene: In my opinion, the barriers that need to be addressed in working for social change are three:  conceptual, technical, and political.  The conceptual barrier is often quite formidable as it dictates how “it has always been done.”  History is a very heavy weight to unload. Breaking out of the script is often the first barrier to be overcome. And often, it takes science to lessen the load; Mary did just that with her evidence-based framework. The technical barrier is brought down by developing the skill sets needed to flesh out the new script, often called “capacity building.”  Fortunately, once the framework is set, the skills needed are easy to identify and develop. The political barrier is the one that enables us to influence the change that we need to achieve. This is often forgotten as we tend to think in terms of “projects” instead of a process to bring about social change. “Projectizing” peace does not address the inequality that is at the root of most violent conflicts. Equalizing power is a process of people finding their own voice as they try to influence the direction of decision-making in development that affects them.

In my recent experiences in addressing protracted social conflict in the city where I live in the Philippines, I have combined what I learned from Do No Harm and Reflecting on Peace Practice, two outstanding pieces of work by CDA. In the process, I have come to the same conclusion as Mary: 

As I look at the challenges today, I propose to factor long-term impacts explicitly into assessments of Accountability. Do No Harm focused (rightly at the time) on providing the life saving assistance in open conflicts without adding to the conflict and, where possible, even reducing the tendencies toward conflict. It is now time not only to do no harm in relation to exacerbating tensions, it is time to do so in ways that last. We must accept accountability for how our work has an impact not only on the sources of tensions today but also in the future.”


Case in point

New People’s Army in Paquibato district, Davao City. Credit: Keith Bacongco, 2009 (CC BY 2.0)

Irene: In designing a process to address the violent conflict in Paquibato, Davao City, once known as the “killing fields”, I worked with the city government to restore state legitimacy in this district that had known nothing but violence between the New People’s Army and the Philippine military for almost 50 years. Using the “dividers and connectors” framework of DNH to define peacebuilding, we said: peacebuilding is the process of increasing connectors and decreasing dividers so that equitable development can occur. We also had to make it clear that peacebuilding was not development because, in fact, some development led to un-peace. We took some ideas from UNDP and defined development as: the process of increasing capacities and decreasing vulnerabilities to expand people’s choices to lead long, happy lives. The  “simple and actionable” definitions meant that the people and agencies involved in the peacebuilding process could easily understand what behaviors would lead to building trust, so badly depleted in times of violent conflict. 

In Reflecting on Peace Practice, the “criteria for effectiveness” indicated that actions have to be “big and fast;” I added “not small and slow.” It was particularly important for the city government to own this as the bureaucracy tended to do things small and slow. “Big and fast, not small and slow” became a mantra for the process.  And since an emergency response was needed, we called this process “Peace 911.”  Pretty soon everybody was involved: from government to the military, the local people’s organization, educational institutions, the private sector, and the NGOs. Collectively and individually they were building trust through “increasing connectors and decreasing dividers” and doing things “big and fast, not small and slow.” 

The impact of all their actions was stunning. Soon the people told the military where they had been asked to hide guns and other ammunition. They informed the Mayor’s office of cases of corruption committed by government agencies. Gambling run by corrupt officials died down. Farmers returned to their fields. More schools were opened and more children went back to school. In groups, the insurgents started to surrender. And within an incredible nine months, the military declared the whole area clear of the insurgency that had endured for almost 50 years! 

It has now been five years since Paquibato has been insurgency-free. But as Mary points out in the quote above, it is time to stop violent conflict “in ways that last.” Stopping violence is popularly known as Negative Peace. We needed a framework that would answer the question: what does a peaceful society look like? How do we get there? I have found the Positive Peace framework most strategic and the building of the Eight Pillars of Positive Peace most practical, an important integration of DNH, RPP, and many other advancements in the peacebuilding sector. 


Irene: In the next 25 years, we must continue to build the community of practice to achieve Negative Peace but also build Positive Peace among various actors, including key government units at all levels, the military, the private sector, and others to create the optimum environment for human potential to flourish. This can be done by influencing mindsets and building structures (relationships) and institutions (sets of rules) to ensure durable peace. CDA is certainly well-positioned to take on that direction with the same rigor and professionalism it has displayed for the last 25 years. 

Neil: As CDA Board Chair, I am continually amazed and humbled by how the work of this small organization continues to have an out-sized impact on thinking across the humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding nexus. Our current work rests on the shoulders of others who taught us how to think broadly, collaborate boldly, act humbly, and share habitually what we have learned.

Irene Santiago

Irene Santiago

CDA Advisory Council Member

Neil Levine

Neil Levine

CDA Board Chair

About this article

This blog was written for CDA Perspectives, a series intended to share reflections, present information, and provoke debate and conversation. Our authors share personal experiences of working towards improving impacts of interventions in contexts of conflict and fragility, and findings from collaborative learning projects. In most cases, we discuss issues related to CDA’s practice areas: accountability and feedback loops, Do No Harm, peacebuilding effectiveness, and responsible business operations. In addition to our staff contributors, we invite colleagues and partners to share their experiences, and host blog post series.

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If you are interested in contributing, please contact Hasangani Edema at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you and include your perspective. 

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About the authors

Irene M. Santiago has been involved for more than 40 years in the quest for a just peace for the Bangsamoro in Mindanao, Philippines. Her range of involvement covers organizing in grassroots Moro communities for almost 10 years starting in 1977; engaging in continuous advocacy for women’s participation in peace processes; being a member of the Philippine Government peace panel negotiating with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front from 2001-2004; and being the first chair of the government panel implementing the Bangsamoro peace agreement signed in 2014. In 2020, Irene was a USIP Women Building Peace Award finalist. Currently, as the Peace Adviser to the Davao City Mayor, she is providing technical advice as well as training to local people’s organizations and elected officials to broaden people’s participation in peacebuilding. A gender expert, she is focusing on ensuring women’s voices are heard and their capacities for peace strengthened. 

Ben Miller

Neil A. Levine joined CDA’s Board in 2018. Neil retired from federal service in 2017 after 30 years in the Executive Branch and on Capitol Hill.  He taught Strategic Leadership at the National Defense University’s Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Policy and taught at American University School of International Service.  While at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), he led the Center of Excellence for Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (2014-17) and the Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation (2008-13).  He is now a certified professional coach with over 20 years of experience in advising individuals and groups on setting the conditions for success.  Neil has a M.S. in National Security Strategy from the National War College (2008), a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University (1986) and a B.A. from Earlham College (1983).   In 2017, he received his Executive Coaching certification from the College of Executive Coaching.