Lessons to be learned in doing less harm

It’s wonderful how turning something on ourselves delivers a fresh perspective. Not necessarily a correct or insightful one. But an interesting one. And yeah, this is going to be about Corona. But like all good Sci-Fi films, this isn’t about the core topic that draws the attention. Just as Another Earth isn’t about the creation of an identical earth within our atmosphere. It’s about accountability, guilt and hopes for redemption. Similarly I don’t want to talk about a virus, a global health risk, or what it will ultimately mean for people. I want to talk about accountability, guilt and hopes for redemption. And all from the most familiar of angles – egocentrism.

This situation starts to uncover some very interesting and familiar dynamics. When people ask humanitarians about their career choice, the explanations are often about external rather than internal need; about inequality not privilege; about wanting to feel like they’re working on something meaningful. Something impactful. And how unintentionally closely wed those last two are. How important it is for us to find meaning in our impact. More on that in a minute. But these are all pull factors. What about the pushes. What made it easy to leave homes, friends, families? And why is that relevant right now? Because some people are being forced to consider reengaging with these. And not necessarily out of choice. The tension in going home comes to light, one that is so often overshadowed by proffered purpose and empathy.

What’s interesting is that there are so many dogmatic narratives of what ‘do no harm’ looks like. And they are mostly about what small steps need to be made to reduce damage, for what otherwise is delivered with crusaid level devotion and moral clarity. We find ways to marginalise our perceptions of the damage we ourselves cause. But it’s much harder to do that when carrying viruses. It’s such a tangible and attributable phenomena, that not even our fragile egos of self-reinforcement could convince us otherwise. Well, most of us anyway.

And so you enter an internal clash. How do you do no harm when you could be carrying a biological weapon, albeit one that may well be released anyway? And the consequent question – should I stay or should I go? Inherent in that question are senses of meaning and assumptions of impact. And when job security is threatened by leaving – what types of risk are we really, honestly, willing to indulge in? And how much are we willing to weigh risks to others versus ourselves? And that’s even before we dig into why.

Some people feel personal risk and bolt, their projected values flimsy in a stiff breeze. Some see wider risk, ignore it and charge into it, tornado chasers if you will, to extend the analogy further than it should of have swept. We should treat these two imposters just the same, these Covid cowards and Corona cowboys. Despite wanting to avoid the whole – ‘there are two types of people in this world’, I am tempted to agree and suggest them as binary reductionists and then the infinite complexity in everyone else. But outside of the CCs, there’s the rest in between. Calculating and influenced. Not one, nor the other, nor any better than either.

In deciphering their courses of action, these people say they need more information, assuming that there is enough information, enough valid information, to make a contextually literate decision. There isn’t. And there wont be. Inferences that we’ve been here before, ‘calm down dear’, and ‘let’s all make a nice cuppa tea and wait for this to blow over’ belies the fact that we haven’t been here before. And even if we had, what evidence is there to say that we’d know what to do with that experience?

So how am I going to take this mish-mash of ready, steady, cook items and make a delicious meal of a conclusion? I’ll use my favouritist of words – impact. The whole dynamic becomes about impact:

  • Impact on the people we work with – in our organisations
  • Impact on the people we in principle work for – in terms of beneficiaries, constituents, clients
  • Impact on funding – the people we really work for – and the resultant…
  • Impact on us – our careers, our lifestyles, on where we are and what we do
  • Impact on our families, our friends, our emotional dependents
  • Let alone the long term impact that will undoubtedly remind us how the least privileged are the most punished, for the most prolonged time

And no. This isn’t where Randomised Conceptions of Truth come in, nor ethnoromantic videos. For all of the conversations about the impact of projects, which are still hugely important in all this, for once we actually should be fairly obsessed with our personal impact. And not just navel-gazing to satisfy the bizarrely shaped holes in our personalities. To combine our personal impact with project impact and wider still. And to recognise the negatives and the risks in all that. To view our personal accountability – and to who it should be attributed. To consider what guilt we will feel with each decision taken, and which of them we’re most comfortable with. And to understand that redemption for the honest may well be elusive. And if we can start to do that, we may even get to a point where we become honest with ourselves and start to address the real question. How do we do less harm? As a principle. And a practice.

Lessons to be learned in doing less harm