Issue 20 - Article 14

Benefitsharms analysis: a rights-based tool developed by CARE International

April 3, 2002
Paul O'Brien

Understanding the impact of our work, let alone taking responsibility for it, is not easy. The ‘ripple effects’ of interventions affect human lives and livelihoods in many different ways. Most emergency relief workers know, for example, that introducing resources into a conflict zone can intensify tensions or promote peace; create revolving cycles of need or move people away from aid dependency; and marginalise the most disadvantaged or promote equity and social justice across groups and communities.

Benefits–harms analysis aims to help relief and development organisations hold themselves responsible for the overall impact of their programmes on people’s human rights. In November 2001, after three years of development and field-testing in East Africa, CARE published a limited edition of the Benefits–Harms Package, containing an introductory Handbook and Facilitation Manual. In 2002, we plan to share these tools with like-minded organisations.

Background to the benefits–harms approach

A series of crises in the late 1980s and 1990s left humanitarian organisations like CARE asking serious questions about their overall impact in complex crises. In September 1998, CARE policy-makers, reviewing the agency’s work in Sudan, committed the organisation to undertaking regular ‘benefit–harms assessments’ so as to better understand the humanitarian, political and security impacts of all CARE’s Sudan projects. For the next three years, the approach was developed, refined and tested in projects around Africa.

Benefits–harms borrows heavily from the human rights field, which provided both the moral mandate – that we must take responsibility for our actions – and the substantive areas of analysis. It also learned much from Mary Anderson’s ‘Do No Harm’ work, which gave us practical, usable tools for reflection on the impact of our work in conflict settings. Finally, it borrowed broadly from CARE’s Household Livelihood Security approach which, among other things, promotes holistic thinking across sectors of intended impact, and multi-sectoral programming where appropriate.

The benefits–harms toolbox

The benefits–harms approach offers a set of nine tools that can be used in the field to help identify and address the overall human rights impacts of any intervention, both positive and negative. Our review of humanitarian interventions in East Africa, both by CARE and by others, revealed three key causes for most unintended impacts:

  1. insufficient knowledge about the contexts in which interventions occur;
  2. a lack of analysis of the unintended impact of interventions; and
  3. a failure to take action to mitigate unintended harms, or to capitalise on unforeseen potential benefits.

To address these three challenges, the benefits–harms approach developed ‘Profile’, ‘Impact’ and ‘Decision’ tools. These tools are organised around three categories of rights: political rights, security rights and economic and social rights. This gives us a nine-part ‘toolbox’.

Screen Shot 2012-11-16 at 10.42.29 AM

How the tools work

The tools contain simple questions, designed for flexible use by programmers with different needs, resources, time and experience. They rely on the capacity of programmers to think, to take the time to ask questions and to act upon the conclusions they reach. By framing straightforward questions across the human rights spectrum, the tools aim to highlight both the moral necessity and practical feasibility of thinking about the overall impact of our work on people’s human rights.

What follows is an overview of three of the nine tools: the political profile tool, the security impact tool and the economic, social and cultural decision tool.

The political profile tool

Traditionally, relief agencies have used political agnosticism to avoid the stigma of ‘political partisanship’. In recent years, however, we have been forced to abandon this sanctuary. As political and military opportunists, in both donor and host countries, have increasingly appropriated humanitarian action for political ends, so we have become aware of the need to become more politically aware ourselves. Today, agencies increasingly recognise that, when their aim is to reallocate resources or decision-making power to marginalised populations, their work is profoundly political. As a consequence, political ‘impacts’ are moving from the unintentional and misunderstood, to the deliberate and clearly recognised.

The political profile tool aims to help programmers think through and discuss political rights in any given setting. It asks users to consider the political and social groupings in the community, particularly where marginalisation or discrimination may be at issue. The tool then provokes thinking about power dynamics in the community: which groups have power, which groups do not, and why? Finally, it asks users to think about rights of political identity, protection, freedom and participation.

CARE has found that using this tool to discuss groupings based on ethnicity, physical disability, religious affiliation or sexual orientation has changed the nature of our thinking. For example, in our discussions with staff in Rwanda over ethnic relations and power dynamics, the tool was particularly useful, providing a structured and principle-based lens for looking at sensitive issues.

The security impact tool

In complex emergency work, there is a risk that relief may unintentionally endanger peoples’ lives, liberty or personal security. The security impact tool asks relief workers to think about how interventions can either weaken or strengthen people’s physical security. It looks at four separate areas: (1) external threats to community security; (2) internal patterns of violence within the community; (3) the underlying causes of violence; and (4) community-based conflict resolution and rights protection processes.

Decision tools aim to strengthen our ability and willingness to respond when we are the problem, and they aim to push us towards rights-based action when others are responsible, either for causing human rights problems or for addressing them. In using these tools, we have found that CARE programmers will allow themselves to discuss difficult and sensitive subjects: in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan, for example, we used this tool to evaluate whether our project was putting vulnerable people at risk by its mere presence. We found that there was a significant risk that we were creating a ‘magnet for harm’, and for several years refused funding to expand programming in this area. In Somalia, we used the tool to consider whether we were missing opportunities to build bridges between adversaries. As a result, reconciliation components were incorporated into our programming. While simple remedies to problems have not always presented themselves, naming these issues has helped to promote a culture of honest and constructive critique in our programming discussions. And, sometimes, these discussions have led to profound changes in our programming.

Screen Shot 2012-11-16 at 10.48.51 AM

The economic, social and cultural decision tool

Humanitarian interventions almost always aim to promote economic, social and cultural rights. Yet our work may actually undermine enjoyment of these same rights; injecting resources may affect markets and earning potential; a health project may clash with local norms around cultural respect and integrity. When a programmer uncovers an unforeseen harm or benefit to an economic, social or cultural right, this decision tool helps them to think through what must be done.

The tool adapts the ‘Seven S’ model from the world of corporate management (shared values and vision, style, systems, strategies, staff interests and well-being, staff skills and a shortage of time, resources or data) to promote thinking and discussion of internal and external constraints to change. In using this tool, we have found that staff will take the opportunity to speak more frankly than they otherwise might about organisational priorities and values. Sometimes, these discussions have led to change; at other times, they have led to a much better shared understanding of the rationale behind a chosen course of action. If a project is damaging the economic rights of a particular community, the tool helps a user consider why a donor or local authority may resist a change in project design, or who might support an appropriate change.


Many programmers understand well the potential for unintended impacts. In the real world, however, much benefits–harms analysis goes on organically or intuitively. The core purpose of the benefits–harms tools is to help programmers share their experience and knowledge with each other. Like most matrix-based tools, they aim to ensure that our communication is efficient (avoiding going over the same territory), creative (ensuring that we at least consider an appropriate array of possibilities) and transparent (helping to flesh out what may be key unspoken assumptions).

These tools are no panacea; humanitarian action and its effects are complex, and no one can fathom every impact of any given project. The tools will not yield new truths, or turn uncommitted amateurs into competent professionals. Ironically, CARE has found that our more experienced programmers who already affirm the need for intuitive benefits–harms analysis have got the most out of these tools, using them to encourage honest learning and constructive self-critique in their country offices. Benefits–harms analysis recognises that we will always need to learn more, think more and make better decisions in our work. That is the unavoidable consequence of taking genuine responsibility for the impact we have on people’s ability to live with dignity.

Paul O’Brien is Africa Policy Advisor, CARE International.

References and further reading

Mary B. Anderson, Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace – Or War (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1999).

Mark Duffield, Global Governance and the New Wars (London: Zed Books, 2001). Berma Klein Goldewijk, Where Needs Meet Rights (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1999).

Larry Minear, Humanitarianism Under Siege (Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1991).

John Prendergast, Frontline Diplomacy, Humanitarian Aid and Conflict in Africa (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1996).


Comments are available for logged in members only.