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Harmonizing Impact Starts With Doing No Harm
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Nearly 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates penned his famous oath requiring doctors to pledge, among other things, to do no harm to their patients. While not required by all medical schools—and by virtually none in its original form—most people are familiar with the concept.
Social entrepreneurs seek to address an almost infinite range of issues, from climate change to HIV and from homelessness in America’s inner cities to extreme poverty in remote villages of Africa and Asia. Whether for financial or political reasons, some social entrepreneurs focus on a single issue, seeming to wear blinders to others.
One of the international development world’s favorite interventions is clean cookstoves. They are a favorite, in part, because they have three separate impacts: improving health of women and children, reducing time or money spent gathering wood or buying charcoal and finally, mitigating climate change by slowing deforestation.
Clean cookstove, left, alongside a traditional cookstove in Kampala, Uganda CREDIT: DEVIN THORPE
Clean cookstoves vary dramatically and their effectiveness has been questioned, but their appeal remains solid because they hit a trifecta of global problems.
Most social interventions, however, have narrower impacts and so allow for or even create a tension between solving one problem while ignoring or even exacerbating another.
For instance, a social enterprise that builds wind or solar power at utility scale in the developing world, will—by definition—have utilities as its customers. The utilities’ customers are more likely to be in urban areas. The open space required for renewable energy projects is more likely to be in rural areas.
This means that the ultimate beneficiaries of the power are not likely the people living nearest the projects, creating a variety of potential conflicts. It is possible that low-income communities existing near a proposed energy project don’t have political power sufficient to extract fair compensation for their land, remuneration for impacts on their livelihoods resulting from construction traffic and related disruptions or even access to the generated power, much less the profit from the project.
Those who build such projects correctly boast of building power that reduces dependence on fossil fuels while bringing power to people who may lack any access or at least reliable access to it. Their work does have significant social and environmental benefits.
At the same time, the potential harms are real and shouldn’t be ignored. In this example, the company building the power could engage local communities to ensure that harm to the community is avoided when possible and financially compensated for otherwise. Local communities should also be allowed to participate in the benefits as directly as possible. Hence, both power and profits from the project should flow back to the local community where the project is built.
Most social entrepreneurs are not dealing with such stark circumstances on either end of the spectrum. Few interventions help in so many ways as clean cookstoves. Most social enterprises don’t face the stark conflicts described in the renewable energy project example either. That means that most people who are seeking to do good in one way or another need to look past the obvious to see the potential harms—and address them.
Perhaps it’s time that social entrepreneurs took an oath to do no harm while seeking to do good.
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