Willa Friedman has got me thinking about Hippocrates. In a recent blog post at the Center for Global Development, she asks a question we’ve probably all wondered about: in the face of poverty and suffering, “isn’t doing something better than doing nothing?” Willa cites two recent studies demonstrating that aid projects intended to alleviate poverty instead led to an increase in violence. Yes, sometimes, despite the best of intentions, aid does harm.
So this made me wonder if we need some version of the Hippocratic Oath, the credo that newly minted physicians recite, which reminds them to wield a doctor’s power and influence with humility and care.
While the Hippocratic Oath is well known for its injunction, “First, do no harm,” there’s more to it. The modern interpretation of the oath speaks of the physician’s solemn responsibility to protect the privacy of patients, to practice the art as well as the science of medicine, and to place patients’ needs above financial gain or social status.
What would the equivalent of a Hippocratic Oath look like for those working in international development? Surely we would need something about tempering enthusiasm for novelty and innovation with a respect for hard-won lessons of the past. Plus a commitment to leave an honest record of what succeeded and what failed, even at the risk of revealing one’s own hubris, inexperience, or misjudgment. We’d have to commit to balancing data and expert knowledge with empathy, observation, and simply asking questions of the people we hope to help—and then actually listening to the answers. Perhaps we’d have to foreswear using photographs that evoke pity, particularly for the purposes of fundraising. Maybe we’d have to toss in a variant of the Golden Rule: Don’t do unto those in other countries what we wouldn’t want them doing unto us. And, of course, do no harm.
International development doesn’t have its roots in a priesthood of physician-healers, and Hippocrates would probably have a tough time understanding the academic disciplines of international relations or development economics. But he just might see the value in thinking about the obligations of a profession like ours. What oath should we pledge when we bring money, scientific knowledge, and promises into the lives of poor people who live far away from us, imagining we can solve their problems?