Summary of "Help Without Hurt"

Summary of

Help Without Hurt

By Duncan Earle and Jeanne Simonelli

This Article Summary was written by Rachael Rackley, School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR), George Mason University, in October 2012.

This piece was prepared as part of the S-CAR / Beyond Intractability Collaborative. Borislava Manojlovic is Associate Editor of that project, and helped to edit this piece in that capacity.

Citation: Duncan Earle and Jeanne Simonelli. "Help Without Hurt: Community Goals, NGO Interventions and Lasting Aid Lessons in Chiapas, Mexico." Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development 29.2 (2000): 97-141.

Note from Beyond Intractability Editor Heidi Burgess: I couldn't help but notice the parallels between this article and Mary Anderson's seminal book entitled Do No Harm, as well as Anderson's related article that appeared in Crocker, Hampson, and Aall's book, Managing Global Chaos. That article, entitled Humanitarian NGOs in Conflict Intervention is also summarized on this site.

The main purpose of a non-governmental organization is to provide aid and/or develop programs in areas that need assistance in a country. Duncan Earle and Jeanne Simonelli conducted fieldwork in Chiapas, Mexico in the summer of 2000 to understand the implications of NGO work in low power communities. Throughout the case study, the authors describe the multitude of actions that need to be taken in stages of development to lead to successful programs and community growth. The authors state that NGOs working in countries with low-power groups or conflict, need to understand how to negotiate their goals with the people and the community they are serving. Additionally, NGOs need to take into consideration their available funding, time, resources, and the sociopolitical realities on the ground. After conducting anthropological research on the ground in Chiapas, Earle and Simonelli observed that the guidelines that have been in place for 25 years for community development NGO's may be hurting communities rather than helping them. Therefore, they have constructed a list of responsible actions for NGO's to perform community development, to help without hurting.

According to the article, there have been very few analyses on the impact of NGOs practices, programs and tactics on the communities they work in. One issue at hand is whether development projects are contributing to the post-conflict problems within communities or if these projects could serve as way to address remaining (or new) disputes. There is a great potential for NGO work to cause harm in societies that are still in stages of conflict. In this case study, NGO work was driving a wedge between two communities of people due to the political situation on the ground in Chiapas. The NGO's were designed for health and economic projects for Guatemalan refugees living in Mexico, but were not accessible to many Mexicans who needed these resources as well.

Additional projects that were developed in Chiapas focused on women's programs for horticulture and ranching. Less attention was paid at how to market the goods, and thus they were failing at tracking the economic success of their programs. An additional issue was that the women's programs were not focused in coffee production, which was viewed by the NGO to be the men's work. The community and people however, view coffee production as work for the whole family. Therefore the NGO did not assess the needs of the families, nor understand the correct cultural interpretations of work in this area. The sales made from their products were not given to the families directly, but distributed as an allowance. When asked about the success of the NGO programs, the community felt that they were not able to be held accountable for the money they made, and that the NGO strategies were very paternalistic in nature and out of touch with the community.

Earle and Simonelli discovered that it took years of work in the community for the people to trust the NGO workers. Many of their programs were aid-based and thus specific in terms of the region and population that they were allowed to help. This caused divisions between the people and further problems with stability. Cultural and political barriers proved to be an even greater difficulty in the attempt to find a community development plan that worked for the region and that would be sustainable. Earle and Simonelli note that sometimes enthusiasm about these projects can override insight (p. 120).

For an NGO program to be successful, the situation on the ground must be understood thoroughly. "To do community development responsibly and efficaciously, one must know the community in all its facets: its history, culture, social divides and alliances, as well as the entirety of the ecological, economic and political setting. In addition, one must have sufficient knowledge of the literature on the subject, and its relationship to intervention, in order to anticipate outcomes based on similar situations. What we do must be based upon what we can and ought to know". Ignorance of the local situations, political stability, and sociocultural systems are a major reason of program failure. NGO workers and those funding the projects must therefore understand the people that they wish to help and be taught from them. Development from the bottom up is a tactic that is enacted, but unfortunately many communities are often not involved in developing viable solutions with the NGOs.

Taking these factors into consideration, the authors devised a set of guidelines for an organization to have successful development in a community without harming the individuals living there. They do not, unfortunately, give many details about how these things should be done.

  1. The first recommended guideline is to enhance social solidarity and community harmony.
  2. The second guideline is to work within the power environment. Earle and Simonelli recommend taking into account the social relations, power systems and authorities inside and outside of the community.
  3. Guideline three is to stress diversification in productive activities as a step toward economic independence and interdependence. The authors state that total dependence on cash crops and markets can be dangerous. Therefore, there needs to be a promotion of new sources of value and work.
  4. Guideline four is to strive toward ecological balance, and a sustaining of the natural environment.
  5. The fifth guideline focuses on working and communicating within the culture and worldview of the communities.
  6. Guideline six is to identify all social groups who could possibly be affected by the intervention, although this is a factor that may be very difficult to determine and is constantly changing.
  7. The seventh guideline stresses avoiding dependency relationships of the community by limiting the timeline of the project.
  8. In guideline eight, reciprocity and symmetry should be promoted and developed within the community.
  9. Making the organizational mission clear and explicit is the ninth guideline they recommend, as well as explaining the goals and intents throughout the project to the community.
  10. Finally, reflect with the community on jointly planned and executed projects.

Working with the community can enhance the trust between the community members and the NGO, and can lead to greater program success and viability. Gaining the "authority" and approval from the community for the NGO's projects also guarantees that funding is not wasted and that development will continue to occur after the NGO completes the project and leaves the area.