I’m no doctor, but do no harm feels like a reasonable compass point. it seems to calibrate with “do unto others” and it resonates with me. And so the longer i worked internationally, on the rural ground far away from the paved roads and well stocked grocery stores of the capitals, the more i began to question the harm component of the work i was doing.

Questioning the efficacy of development work is pretty commonplace. If you don’t question that at some point you aren’t paying attention or don’t care. If you don’t question you can’t adjust to make things better. But the more fundamental question of “should i even be here?” is the one i struggled with. Struggle.

I’d decided we didn’t- i didn’t. and i had a litany of experiences and research to back up my claim.

And then my uncle happened.

Listening to his dizzying and infuriating assertion that he (and any other westerner) didn’t have the time or inclination to do research on international issues they cared about in order to “help” i thought my head might explode.

He was talking about Kony2012 and had the bracelet – red threaded band with a small metal disk- to prove his commitment. What was i doing, he asked. At least they were doing something.  What that something was he couldn’t quite articulate but he was certain it was better than my frustrated pessimism, better than my counter argument that solutions are complex- as are the problems that make them necessary.

I don’t believe something is always better than nothing. I do believe that something can cause harm and make things worse than they were. But in the midst of our discussion, my frustration a stark contrast to his calm, i saw a pinpoint of truth to his argument.

What was i doing? Past work aside, i came home in part to get away from that world – to try to figure out if/how i fit into a system meant to fix problems but that is fraught with issues of pay equity, short-term solutions, ignorance of nuance, and good intentions gone wrong.

There is danger in assumption that “my something” is better than whatever else might happen in the absence of it. There is ego in it as well. But in equal measure there is also merit in the question of my doing. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Edmund Burke. What am I contributing to that triumph?

*from summer 2012


1 Comment on the do nothing doctrine*

  1. nicole says:

    linnea! i’m having these exact thoughts…but working on a “school reform” project in an urban US public school. i’m pretty sure doing nothing is better than doing our version of something. good intentions are certainly not enough.

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