Do No Harm is Three Things

September 26, 2013 | Marshall Wallace

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Do No Harm is three things. It is a principle. It is a project. It is a practice.The principle is thousands of years old. Simply, it states that if you are trying to do good, you should make sure you do not cause harm at the same time. Do No Harm is fundamentally about accountability.

The project began in 1993 to learn about applying the principle to humanitarian and development work and about failures to do so.

The practice is a set of techniques that grew out of the lessons from the project, making it easy to apply the principle in daily work.

The principle of Do No Harm has been widely adopted. It has been formally incorporated into policies of donors, international, and local organizations. The principle is invoked in speech after speech on how to think about change in the world. It is now the bedrock for all statements about intervention of whatever kind (humanitarian, development, peacebuilding, and even, at times, war).

The project has had great success! The principle would not be so widely spread or central to so many discussions if the Do No Harm Project had not raised global awareness to ongoing mismatches between statement and action.

Yet the practice lags. It lags precisely because of the success of the principle. We can refer to the principle of Do No Harm and declare its importance, and then in the next breath confess the difficulty of living up to any principle.

The practice is an admonition against empty principles and for taking real accountability. Do No Harm is practical, evidence-based and -driven, and it works. The principle has been given flesh and its philosophical difficulty removed by a simple set of techniques, widely used among practitioners.

Do No Harm is three things that work together. The principle offers us moral grounding, the project gives us intellectual understanding, and the practice provides our physical leverage to change the world in accordance to principle.


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