The phrase ‘do no harm’ is most commonly associated with medicine but is just as important a principle in the social sector. In the mining sector, companies are required to undertake comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) when seeking government approval to undertake a new mining project. The purpose of an EIA is to demonstrate that potential positive and negative impacts that the proposed project may have on the environment and community have been identified and assessed.

Similarly in the social sector, frameworks such as the aptly named ‘do no harm’ framework consider sources of tension, understand how people remain connected despite social divisions caused by conflict, and how an assistance program will impact on the social dynamics of the target community.

Development projects are fuelled by the best of intentions but ultimately people are complicated and behavioural change is tough – hence why there are so many cases where aid has gone wrong.

For example, economic development projects in developing countries are often agriculture-based – often focused on improving farming practices. But without market access and a buyer, farmers could end up producing high quality crops with nowhere and/or no one to sell them to. Perhaps farmers have both market access and a buyer, but intermediary traders have been bypassed to improve farmer incomes. Traders often fulfil the role of a one-stop shop in local communities – selling groceries, providing credit, as well as trading farmers’ produce. Cutting a trader out of a value chain may result in families losing access to vital services.

Development projects are ultimately about solving a problem, and there are a variety of problem-solving tools and approaches that can be borrowed from the design and tech world. One example is human centred design – a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs (IDEO).

Credit: Tamarack Institute


Here are some of the ways in which a human centred design approach can benefit the social sector.

  • Don’t design solutions behind a desk – Rather than making assumptions about why something isn’t working, it’s critical to truly understand the context of the problem that you’re trying to solve. This includes patterns of behaviour, pain points and benefits of the current process that you’re trying to ‘fix’ that might be peripheral to the core objective of the process. For example, one development organisation built water wells closer to remote villages so that women wouldn’t have to travel so far to access water. However, they hadn’t realised that women used these long journeys to discuss and resolve community problems – therefore by removing this opportunity for conflict resolution, the organisation had inadvertently increased the level of community conflict. (Marthaler, E. & Gabriel, S., 2013)
  • Get feedback often – Without a crystal ball it’s nigh impossible to anticipate all unintended consequences. To minimise the risk of causing more harm than good, it’s important to introduce change slowly and get feedback often so that you can adjust your approach as required. In the tech world this is often done by building a minimum viable product. At Business for Development, we follow a similar approach through an initial test-and-learn phase – essentially developing a ‘minimum viable value proposition’ for a small group of early adopters in our target community.
  • Co-design with the community – By co-designing with the community, you not only improve buy-in and a sense of ownership from the community, but your solution is also more likely to be fit for purpose.

As systems become increasingly complicated and intertwined it will become even more important to evolve approaches to development to ensure that the ‘butterfly effect’ of development programs are considered.