Lens and Filter

October 2, 2013 | Marshall Wallace

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In our field of humanitarianism and development, we often use the concept of a lens to discuss various themes we have determined are important. We refer to a gender lens or a human rights lens or a conflict lens. A lens is supposed to serve to focus our attention, but in a broad way. Just as I wear my glasses both to read and to drive, to see near and far, we are meant to use our lenses to view everything in our environment with regard to a concept.

To talk of a conflict sensitivity lens – or a Do No Harm lens – is to suggest that our attention should be focused on the conflict related implications wherever we look and whatever we do.

But the lens is not always the most appropriate metaphor for augmenting vision. Its wide approach can obscure the details, convincing us of a big picture that might just be a distortion in the lens itself. A lens is not always practical, enforcing a broad singular vision on all that we see. A lens offers little or no guidance to distinguish information, to separate importance from noise. Too much information is often worse than too little, leading to inaction. Viewing a situation through a Do No Harm lens can lead to paralysis because conflict and complexity appear to dominate our field of view.

We are assured by others that experience will help us to learn what information is crucial and what is not, that we will learn what to look for. This might be true, but we are still expected to do something today.

We can also use the concept of the filter. A filter removes things that are unnecessary. A filter focuses our attention narrowly, stripping out large amounts of information. Not every piece of information is relevant to understand the conflict dynamics of a situation. Simply put, not every piece of information matters when considering the interaction between women and men and their environment.

If we remove unnecessary information, we can focus our attention more precisely on what is important. This allows us to prioritize with more confidence, as well as to make decisions more rapidly and effectively.

The principle of Do No Harm is a lens. We can look at all of life through it. Many people have told me how Do No Harm changed their lives by encouraging them to apply their values in all aspects of their lives.

The practice and techniques of Do No Harm are filters. They remove unnecessary information and help us to focus on what is important: those factors that show us how we interact with and have an impact on conflict.


  1. Stephie

    Good points and analogies. However, I find myself thinking that while, yes, a broad-view ‘lens’ can often lead to an overabundance of information, and therefore paralysis or unproductive results, I still think it is a good thing to start with. The key is to not rely on it throughout the life of a project. That’s where the ‘filter’ can come into play and sharpen up focus, highlighting the important things. Your lens squares you up, it gives you someplace to start – and then from there you can start filtering stuff out that you know or learn is not relevant.

    • Marshall Wallace

      Thanks for your reply, Stephie. Let me push you, though: What do you mean when you say a lens “is a good thing to start with”? How do you start with a lens? How do you know when it is the right time to bring in the filter?

      • Stephie

        Those are really key questions, and those questions (or similar ones) I think come up whether you use a lens, a filter, both, or neither. For instance, if you were to use a ‘filter’ as you describe in this article, how do you know which things make the cut and which don’t, with regards to importance and the focus of the project? How do we decide what matters more? These decisions will always be difficult, even with the help of a lens or filter.

        A lot of the time using any analogy or framework (such as a lens or a filter) can lead to more questions than answers. At the same time this can be a good thing because it provokes thoughts, issues and ideas that wouldn’t have otherwise been raised.

        What I meant by my comment is that I don’t think a lens is completely without advantages. And I think you capture this idea in your paragraph about how the principle of Do No Harm is a lens, while the techniques used in practice are the filters.

        Thank you for your thoughts and ideas!


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