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  • Writer's pictureNery Duarte

Doing No Harm

In response to the Lebanese tragedy.

The following article was written from my presentation to a network of directors and leaders of Christian relief agencies gathering 10 years ago in order to better coordinate our relief response after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. As I follow up on the humanitarian emergency response taking place in Beirut, I cannot help but compare and see how many of the same considerations I shared about our Haitian humanitarian response would now apply to the humanitarian relief response taking place in Lebanon.


The Haitian and now the Beirut disasters are very complex humanitarian emergencies in modern human history. In Lebanon millions of people are now facing, and likely will continue to face, tremendous shortages of basic necessities. As it happened in Haiti ten years ago, today humanitarian agencies, along with supportive governments, are being forced to ask this question: How can we, in a timely and appropriate way, help the Lebanese people meet their short and long-term needs, and at the same time, seek to use this tragedy as an opportunity to assist in helping breaking away from a seemingly endless cycle of mismanagement and dependency? The answers are not so simple.

This article does not necessarily address the larger humanitarian agencies responding to this emergency, nor other supportive governments. I trust that they are working with possible solutions for the issue of investing, rather than just randomly spending the resources entrusted for people in need. In our quest for answers on how to assist, emergency response agencies must be sensible and attempt to incorporate a mechanism that will empower the country with long-term solutions and at all cost avoid nourishing more cycles of corruption and dependency.

As a whole, the humanitarian industry has learned many lessons from previous emergencies, and has become a more professionalized industry. It is by recognizing and embracing these “lessons learned” that we can attempt to avoid mistakes made in the past. Tools such as the books, Do Not Harm and Complex Humanitarian Emergencies, and codes of ethics and conduct such as those provided by the Red Cross and Red Crescent Federation and the Standards for Humanitarian Aid will undoubtedly be implemented. Along with this, most large humanitarian agencies will strive to join the coordinated effort lead by the United Nations, which has the ultimately mandate to allow local governments to become directly responsible for the welfare of their own citizens. (I)

The story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 and their families can give us some guidance on how to tackle the question of wisely providing aid to desperately needy people. The story begins with uncertainties about how to meet their needs, and the way in which Jesus responds to those uncertainties. Although the world may have enough resources to meet the basic needs of the people of Lebanon, it is important to note that the resources which were miraculously multiplied came from within the needy crowd and from the one who had the least: a young child. We must remember that before the earthquake, the Haitian as well the Lebanese people were somehow able to meet their own needs, and in spite of their scarcity, they did have agriculture, commerce, and productive activities. The question we need to ask is: How can we best support their established sources of livelihoods while avoiding interventions that could weaken their already built sustainability?

Referring back to the story of feeding the 5,000, I noticed that the food distribution was not done by Jesus himself, but by his disciples. Jesus did not seek to make a name for himself, although it may have been tempting. With this in mind, the second question that all assistance agencies either large or small ought to ask in Lebanon is: How can we better enable local networks to do their own relief, rehabilitation and development work? The question should not be limited to: How can we do the assistance effort? We need to find ways to assist local governance, municipalities, and community-based organizations, in order to strengthen them by providing a sense of accomplishment and empowering local community leadership.

The writer is fully aware that in Lebanon the greatest challenge for humanitarian agencies will be to be able to discern which local, regional and national political, social or religious establishment can and should be trusted to carry on any emergency response undertaking while willing to put aside underlying agendas.

During Hurricane Mitch in Honduras, a faith-based organization came to donate several truckloads of supplies to a community. These were distributed among the population in need. Simultaneously, the local municipality was struggling to meet many of the same basic emergency needs. Although the donation given by the international relief agency was obviously well-meaning, it actually humiliated the efforts of the local authorities because they could only afford a very small donation in comparison to what the international agency was able to do. The humanitarian agency left after a few days. However, the assistance they gave created a long-lasting feeling of mistrust between the locals towards their leadership.

Years ago, during a large flood, I observed a response team of army engineers trying to build a road across a swamp after the bridge had been destroyed. Endless effort and thousands of dollars were invested. In the meantime, just one kilometer beyond their work I encountered a small truck driving across the swamp. The locals had already built a pathway and they were using it! The engineers had not bothered to look around or ask questions. Local authorities and well-established aid agencies need to be asked these simple questions: To whom, where, and when, in the most efficient way we should support? These questions asked to local leadership may save time and efforts.

Before feeding the crowd that may have actually been more than 10,000, Jesus had them sit down on and divide them into small groups. Jesus made sure things were organized, by directing the aid providers to take specific actions. As we did in Haiti, we need to ask in Lebanon this question: How can we assure that our assistance will enhance the already ongoing labors coordinated by local networks?

Once, in Nicaragua after a Hurricane, I encountered a team of independent relief workers building a small number of nice transition homes right beside the project of a much larger relief agency attempting to build a much larger number of more basic transition homes that would serve to benefit a larger number of families. The recipients of the homes from the larger humanitarian assistance agency were unhappy when they saw nicer homes built by the smaller NGO. These examples illustrate that good work done in an unthoughtful and with an un-synchronized approach can actually do more harm than good.

During Jesus’ miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus himself asks the question: Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat? Yes! The one who would have the answer is asking the question! Too often, we indulge in arrogance by assuming we know the answers. There are many complex questions that need to be asked both now and during this still unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Lebanon. Only if we purposely and respectfully engage those who are having the problems will we be able to harvest lasting results.

While working in Haiti, I witnessed a group of impromptu aid volunteers who had brought a

truckload of powered baby formula to feed a large number of babies in a refugee camp. Even a novice worker in the humanitarian industry should know that breastfeeding mothers must not be given baby formula to feed their babies. During the time it takes to use up the supply of formula, the mother’s capability of breastfeeding will also dry up, thus potentially condemning the child to severe malnourishment. Before setting off to help in Lebanon, humanitarian relief agencies must strive to support venues with self-sustaining strategies.

Lastly, in the account of feeding the 5,000, after relief food was given, Jesus made sure that

cleanup took place for the obvious purposes of respect for the social and physical environment, as well as accountability. The most difficult question posed to any organization working (or intending to work) in Lebanon will be: What legacy will we leave behind? There are only two possibilities: a messy, weakened, and wasteful site, or an empowered, self-sustaining, and dignified Lebanese


Nery Duarte, M. Div.

Other readings from the same author:

Bibliographical References:


• Anderson, M. (1999). Do not Harm: how aid can support peace or war. Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

• Cahill, K. (2003). Emergency Relief Operations. New York: Fordham University Press and the Center for International Health and Cooperation.

• Janz, M. & Slead, J. (2000). Complex Humanitarian Emergencies: Lessons from Practitioners. California: World Vision International.

• Declaration of the Rights of the Child .

• International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies: The Code of Conduct

• Lanham, M.(1998). Hard Choices: Moral dilemmas in humanitarian intervention. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield.

• Lautze, S., (1997), Saving Lives and Livelihoods: The Fundamentals of a Livelihoods’ Strategy, Medford, MA: Feinstein International Famine Center.

• The Sphere Project: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response. (2008) Oxford, UK: Oxfam Publishing.


The Bible (1984). NIV Translation, Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers

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