A. Context sensitivity/do no harm

‘Do no harm’ (context sensitivity) is a principle for the planning, evaluation and adaptation of assistance measures in crisis management. It is based on the understanding that any international involvement has unavoidable side effects. With this guiding principle, crisis work should be shaped in a way sensitive to the context it operates in. Its negative effects should be minimised.

The ‘do no harm’ approach was developed at the beginning of the 1990s by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Developed for emergency aid, it has since been applied in all areas and phases of crisis management. One of the core assumptions of ‘do no harm’ is that in every conflict forces and structures are present that promote or maintain violence; while on the other hand, there are peaceful solutions.

International crisis management should strengthen those structures (e.g. dispute resolution procedures) and actors (e.g. moderate leaders) that can work positively towards a peaceful transformation of conflict. In reality, however, such measures could promote conflict, even if unintentionally. For instance, depending on who is helped first, who receives benefits and which signals international actors send out, international aid can actually worsen conflicts and emergencies.

International actors can cause damage by failing to act. Equally they can cause damage by articulating or promoting their interests and priorities too vigorously. Such interventions can be perceived as biased or inappropriate.

For instance, after the end of the civil war in Guatemala in the late 1990s, returning refugees received international support in the form of land, houses and educational programmes. However, those who had remained in the country received no comparable benefits and felt neglected. This resulted in local conflicts as well as disputes among aid organisations. In Afghanistan, international efforts to empower women and promote their engagement in the political sphere increased tensions in the families of some of the women and in some of the villages that beneficiaries of women’s empowerment projects resided in.

International crisis management is continuously confronted with dilemmas. Achieving a wholly positive outcome of international engagement is often not possible. In line with the ‘do no harm’ principle, it is necessary to self-examine one’s actions, identify pitfalls and address them. However, it is not sufficient only to examine one’s actions: the ‘do no harm’ approach must be applied to the very analysis that provides the basis for an informed understanding of a conflict. When including the principle in all stages of their work on the ground, states, international organisations and NGOs have a chance to balance out imperatives of action while taking into consideration possible unintentional and long-term consequences of their actions ahead of time.