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ITE TIG Week: Doing no harm with technology in evaluation: Part 1 by Antony Maikuri, Veronica Olazabal, and Vidhya Shanker

Hello! We are Antony Maikuri of the University of Minnesota, Veronica Olazabal of The Rockefeller Foundation, and independent evaluator/scholar Vidhya Shanker. Today we start a two-part entry that continues an ongoing conversation about harm, healing, and evaluation. Tomorrow, we consider what expanding and deepening our ideas about harm and healing means in practice for the integration of technology into evaluation.

First, harm

“Do no harm” may seem universal and common sensical. Embedded within common, contemporary understandings of this phrase, though, is the idea that harm is a discrete act—one that we can avoid “doing” by exercising individual control—as opposed to an ongoing condition.

Evaluation & Harm

Application of the phrase “do no harm” to the evaluation of humanitarian and development aid reveals ideas about harm, healing, and practitioners’ roles that underlie these fields. It suggests that the dynamic between “us” and beneficiaries/evaluands parallels common, contemporary understandings of the dynamic between patient and physician, wherein the former are sick and the latter have knowledge and technology. Healing is portrayed as coming from outside the patient. Harm is portrayed as outside the relationship—something that physicians, and evaluators, can steer clear of rather than something that we are all inevitably implicated within.

Why this matters

The metaphors we choose shape our mental models, which determine the boundaries of what is permissible and ultimately the kind of evaluation, writ large, that is possible. Which risks of harm are illuminated and which ones are obscured by various metaphors? How does each approach healing?

The physician must be able to tell the antecedents, know the present, and foretell the future--must mediate these things, and have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm. The art consists in three things--the disease, the patient, and the physician. The physician is the servant of the art, and the patient must combat the disease along with the patient.

Lessons Learned
Hippocrates’ own words were much more nuanced. Still, having arisen from a specific context—the medical ethics of 4th century BCE Greece—the Oath attributed to Hippocrates reflects an understanding of harm and healing that is occupationally, historically, and culturally located as opposed to universal across discipline, time, and space.

Contemporaneous with the Greek tradition of medical ethics are many other traditions, some of which were also written. For example, the ethics of traditional Indian medicine, documented in Tamil manuscripts dated between 2000 BCE and 500 CE, see all bodies as microcosms of the universe. They admonish physicians to know where their patients live; to treat patients like their own family; and to focus on prevention, cure, and liberation from the suffering of rebirth on earth. Embedded within these guidelines is the idea that harm and healing are place-based, relational, and potentially spiritual.

Hot Tip: Experiment with other metaphors for the dynamics involved in evaluation

  • Rather than physicians healing patients, what if we thought of ourselves as traditional midwives attending to the (re)birth of ancestral knowledge? What if we thought outside occupational roles altogether—and instead at natural systems?

Rad Resources: Explore other sources of ethics for data

  • Sabelo Mhlambi explains what the Pan-African ethic of interdependence and intersubjectivity, Ubuntu, could offer artificial intelligence.
  • Data Feminism offers a way to think about community-owned production, interpretation, and use of data that is informed by the ethics of intersectional feminism.

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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