Do No Harm: “We cannot promote peace without paying attention to the context”

Sokha Chan, director of KCD

The Do No Harm (DNH) approach provides a clear framework for analyzing impacts of development cooperation and humanitarian aid projects on the local context in order to avoid negative outcomes at an early stage. In this interview, DNH expert Sokha Chan from Cambodia explains how the approach is implemented in her organization’s projects and evaluates the associated challenges and benefits.

This interview is conducted by Do No Harm (DNH) trainer Wolfgang Heinrich. He interviewed Sokha Chan, the director of the organization Khmer Community Development (KCD), herself also an educated DNH trainer and member of the “Do No Harm Community of Practice” of the Cambodian NGO network Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC).

What motivated you to be interested in Do No Harm?

After learning about Do No Harm by the DNH team in Cambodia, I became interested in applying the concept to Khmer Community Development (KCD). In my role as a leader within the organization, I can reflect on my leadership and on the project implementation. For me it is a tool for learning and improving my capacity as it guides me towards paying more attention, learning about the context, project implementation and resource transfer. These are the fields in which I am working. I also get to understand people’s happiness, concerns and needs better, and learn how the organization can contribute to improving the situation with respect and sustainable development. We try to listen to and empathize with the target group in the communities and reflect on how our projects can support people, how to learn about their issues and find suitable solutions. With this, KCD can grow into an organization which tries to learn from and adapt with people.

What is the context of the project in which you used DNH most recently?

KCD mainly targets places at the border between Cambodia and Vietnam, working with people who are living in the flood zone and also living on boats along the river. There are Khmer and ethnic Vietnamese who have been staying in Cambodia for decades. Both Khmer and ethnic Vietnamese face the same challenges in education, they experience domestic violence, and poverty. However, the ethnic Vietnamese face more challenges as they have limited legal documents so there are more barriers for them to access formal education and to integrate in society. Some ethnic Vietnamese from the target places are afraid to participate in the projects as they do not trust KCD, it being a Khmer organization. Mostly, KCD tries to reflect on DNH strategies in all projects.

Can you give us some information about that project?

KCD works on community development, promoting children’s rights and building peace in the communities. All projects of KCD try to engage all people of all ethnic backgrounds in the communities to join the projects including children, adults, local authorities, and disabled people. As a peace organization, we understand that we cannot promote peace without paying attention to the context in which peace shall flourish. This is why we use community development, education and sports as fields in which conflicts can be managed constructively and peacefully.

To ensure education for all, KCD tries to engage all children in the community in order for them to get higher education through raising the teachers’, local authorities’ and the community’s awareness. As public schools require birth certificates to enroll, it is a challenge for some ethnic Vietnamese who do not have the required documents. Barriers are added, if they cannot speak the Khmer language, their age is older and they are discriminated against by their Khmer friends in the classroom. There are quite limited opportunities for ethnic Vietnamese to be part of the societal development with them mainly living on boats and fishing being the main source of income. KCD tries to engage all Khmer and ethnic Vietnamese in all projects.

Were there any challenges using DNH?

For applying DNH, KCD needs time to learn about the context, the lives of the people, learn about culture, ways of thinking, values and reflect upon this as KCD team. KCD needs to find the entry points to start the project with a key person in the community and include local authorities and both, Khmer and ethnic communities in the process. As dividers and connectors are the main elements in DNH, the team needs to learn and be aware of this and think of ways to start a project that reduces dividers and increases connectors, especially in conflict sensitive communities. We also need to find entry points to work with both communities to build more trust and confidence that will lead to increased solidarity. All this needs time and most of the staff is aware that this is a long-term project.

The interview was conducted by Dr. Wolfgang Heinrich, DNH trainer.

In terms of conflict sensitivity, the situation is not stable, so the project implementation should remain flexible and be based on the needs of the communities. Some donors are aware of Do No Harm and some donors are not quite familiar with the concept. It then becomes a challenge to apply DNH based on donor procedures and regulations. Thankfully, we can sometimes find the space address and discuss this, but other times, we as an organization have to strictly follow their procedures. In previous experience, some procedures of donors and organizations are not the right fit for the situation as they require detailed documents, signatures or fingerprints. In this context, when our target groups do not know the Khmer language, they will fear to join the project. For instance, there was a case in which participants joined project activities in the target village. They asked not to sign the list of participants because they didn’t understand what the document was about and were also concerned about their security. However, the donor required us to have all names and signatures of the participants, especially if there was any material handed out to them. At that time, it was a challenge for us to ask people to join activities because most of our participants were not able to read or write.

Did conflict-sensitive project planning with DNH have positive effects? Can you give some examples?

Some communities experience positive effects when they have trust in the organization and join KCD projects, although it being a Khmer organization. Some target places work towards supporting ethnic Vietnamese children in public education including district school education, schools, and local authorities on the district, communal and village level. To give you an example, some Vietnamese children who do not have a birth certificate can join public schools with a letter from their commune that is signed by the chief of the commune and the school directors work towards creating an open space, where the children are accepted and can learn. While local authorities can also enable cooperation among organizations, thus creating a positive environment for ethnic Vietnamese to join KCD projects without the fear of risks, in some places there is still limited cooperation, where KCD faces challenges to work with ethnic Vietnamese.

Positive effects are also the increased number of ethnic Vietnamese in Khmer public schools and the reduced discrimination by Khmer classmates.

Do you see advantages in project implementation when DNH is used as compared to projects in which it was not considered?

I would say, there are advantages for KCD and our projects as we pay more attention to the way we work with people. We are learning as an organization and reflect with the team on the implementation of the projects. All this helps KCD to have initiatives and creative ideas for our work, thereby supporting communities to reduce harm. We try to develop the projects together with key participating actors such as local authorities, and both, Khmer people and ethnic Vietnamese. What we have learned is that local authorities and the communities are the experts in solving the problems and improving the situations in their communities and we help them to find the entry points. We are aware of our role as outsiders and always underline this in talks.

Did you mainstream DNH in your organization? If yes, how did you do it?

KCD recognizes DNH as a tool to measure the project implementation. KCD has built the capacity of the KCD staff and communities for them to reflect on how they have dealt with the idea of improvement by including DNH. Meanwhile, KCD staff are applying the method of DNH with the communities and among the KCD staff itself.

Based on your experience is there any advice you can give organizations which are considering mainstream DNH?

The organization should identify their values and explain these to donors and all other stakeholders before deciding to mainstream DNH organization-wide. If all the relevant people are on the same page DNH is easier to apply.

How can we apply the principle of Do No Harm to transform our good intentions into good projects? Learn more about the DNH approach in our practical handbook “Good intentions are not good enough“.