Sunday, 25 October 2009

Intentions, Actions, and Results

In a point and time where the world stands witness to the effects of disaster, famine, war, and disease, it is important to look at how we intended to help, how we acted on this intention, and how our actions brought results in the lives of people whom we wanted to help and reach out. Oftentimes, we think, that doing good is enough, but I argue that this isn’t so. There are many questions we need to answer ourselves.

Figure 1. The Famous Villar Lunchbox

Good Intentions

A good intention alone is not a good barometer to determine the desirability of a development intervention because it does not necessarily make a development project good nor does it condition a good result.

First, a development project, even when imbued with good intention, may result to actions that are not responsive to the needs of people assisted. It is in this case that it is important to know who decides on how intentions are translated into actions - the one with the intent or the one to whom the intentions are directed. Thus, development projects that are dropped down from heaven like an inviolable prescription, without regard of the condition of the ground to which it shall be applied, may result to incongruence of problems and perceived solutions and may even be harmful to local conditions. This usually happens when development agents, be they government, NGO, or private actors, work on a set of presumptions based on their own principles and experiences without regard of local knowledge and cultures. What could be worse is when these agencies work on presumptions, not only on the remedies they want to apply but also on the problem that they seek to address.

Second, good intentions are questionable, especially when they carry with them hues of competing interests - political, economic or social - of the giver. Intentions do not have to be good only, they must also have to be pure, especially in cases where lives are at stake and people are at the receiving end. While I have argued that good intentions need not necessarily result to good actions, they inarguably provide a frame on how the actions are carried out. It is already bad when good intentions do not bring good actions, but it is worse when good intentions while not bringing good actions, are attached with selfish interests of the one who has the desire to help.

Acts of Kindness

To do good – giving food to a child, treating the sick and the wounded, providing potable water - is oftentimes considered unassailable. But it can always be argued that good actions do not necessarily bring good results and that the goodness of an act is not intrinsic in itself (as contended by deontologists) but is dependent on the results that it later generates (as argued by consequentialists).

Giving a group of people food is good if the action is to be judged by itself. However, when giving them food would destroy their natural resiliency and coping mechanisms, the goodness of the act is shrouded by its unanticipated effects. In like manner, giving food to the needy, done without limits and boundaries, may not be desirable when it subjects the recipient to valuing destitution because it warrants help. While people may argue that dependency cannot be created by development projects since the amount spent is so immaterial to cause it, it can also be argued that the amount is not an issue but the act in itself. The thought alone that help will come, though how small, creates a rule of expectations that when continually reinforced at every occurrence of emergency, may result to dependency. This has implications at both the individual and state level. The occurrences of intentional starving of one child to feed a family or the non-reporting of a dead child to ensure the same amount of food supply may illustrate the kind of dependent attitude encouraged by development funds.

This is not to say however, that in situations of a biblical famine, where states and individuals are helpless and when death is at every doorstep, one should not give food. It is important to discern, more than anything else, an appropriate food relief intervention with due regard of not only the present (the act) but the future (the results) as well, in order to manage efficiently transitions in interventions as needs and situations of beneficiaries change.

Nevertheless, even without regard of the results of an action, the goodness of an act may still be questioned based on its attending circumstances. Even the IFRC/RC admits that giving aid is not at all intrinsically good when it says in its Code of Conduct that “giving aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint”, that aid agencies must “endeavour not to act as instruments of government foreign policy”. The caveats provided in the principles spell the fact that aid giving is not at all desirable in all circumstances and that these should be dispensed with caution and restraint.

Noble Ends

However, it may be argued that despite the misgivings in implementation of development projects, good results were realized. But are good results enough to indicate that good things were done?

Good results may not at all indicate the desirability of the action, nor do they ensure the dignity of the intention. Money may be raised and a hundreds may have benefited but when media and aid agencies resorted to ‘disaster pornography’ and misrepresented the crisis by overstating the facts in order to bring in the cash, or when the desire to help is tainted with an agency’s personal interest, the results are morally questionable.

However, how do we measure good results in development projects? By the number of lives saved from hunger? By the number of rice bags distributed to famine victims? On the surface, figures speak of significant achievements but undoubtedly, they do not carry the dark stories that happened because they only represent cases but not people with stories. This is particularly true in the extreme situations of what is referred to as “complex emergencies”.

For example, figures do not reflect the fact that feeding centres served as catch pointsfor forced relocation of unknowing civilians in Ethiopia. They do not reflect the intentional avoidance of humanitarian agencies to address causes of conflict aggravating famine conditions, or even just addressing the famines in Sudan. They do not carry the stories of rape and violence against women in refugee camps in Kenya. They do not mention the fact that humanitarian agencies were found to have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in Rwanda.


To mitigate, if not avoid the risk of becoming a part of the problem, there are a lot of issues and questions that the development enterprise has to contend with. Indeed, it is not just only about just cause, just means and just ends.

There are questions on approaches in arriving at interventions – whether these interventions were drafted with considerable knowledge of people, context and situations. There are questions on accountability and attribution – as to who takes responsibility not only for successes but also for failures in implementation in order to facilitate immediate mitigation. More importantly, there are questions on humanitarian principles – whether to include in the discernment process of the humanitarian enterprise, the applicability of the rules of human rights and social justice and the unavoidable political and economic causes and consequences that surround the concept and functions of humanitarian assistance.

These questions are necessary for introspection because history shows that development projects, humanitarian aid, disaster relief and emergency responses, despite assertions of neutrality and impartiality, can never remain apolitical.


Joven Opon said...

There's the "Do No Harm/Local Capacities for Peace" framework we can use: a tool to help us unpack context including the planned aid/ avoid feeding into the problem and instead increase local capacities...

Miko Cañares said...

Hi Ven, I have read the Do No Harm literature when I took a course on evaluating peacebuilding programs at INCORE. I have a few concers on the lit, but we can talk about it the next time we gather. Kanus-a kaha na no?

Ferdz said...

Hi Miko,

This is the first time I have read your blog. I am very interested to keep contact with you since right this time, I am conducting a study (university based) on the liquid waste management of Tagbilaran City. May I have your email address? I wish to communicate with you via email. My research interests are in public policy which have bearing on environmental management and development. I am also doing a research on government microfinancing program through cooperatives in Cebu, its impact on poverty alleviation. Looking forward to interact more with you via email. Thanks.

Trevor Batten said...

You guys don't think that by continually pontificating professionally on how to help other people you are actually helping to prevent them from helping themselves?

Or perhaps, maybe even worse, you are preventing yourselves from thinking about how to liberate yourselves from the system that captivates you?