Unintended consequences of international philanthropy

Perry Gottesfeld

International development projects funded by foundation and public sector money have in recent years been increasingly subject to empirical measurement and assessment tools. New rigour has entered this field and both large and small funders have taken note. Noticeably lacking, however, has been any systematic effort to evaluate the likely indirect and unintended impacts on human health and the environment, either before projects begin or after they are completed. A formal assessment during the planning stages of development projects may identify and help prevent these undesirable outcomes.

Perhaps the best-known example of international aid producing unintended harmful consequences is UNICEF’s efforts in the 1970s to provide clean drinking water to Bangladesh by drilling deep bore wells. At the time, no efforts were made to test the aquifers for contaminants such as heavy metals. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that a man visiting his family in Bangladesh became concerned about the increased frequency of skin lesions and other health effects in his hometown. He had the water tested for heavy metals and discovered high levels of arsenic. Authorities in Bangladesh and neighbouring areas of India are struggling to develop adequate water filtration systems to remove arsenic from thousands of wells but millions of people are still relying on drinking water with unsafe levels.

Even today some of the most respected institutions overlook the potential negatives of their programmes. The Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization and UNICEF, for example, are providing billions of vaccinations in developing countries annually. However, the project relies on single-use plastic syringes that are then burned in small furnaces, releasing a mixture of carcinogens and other toxic gases. Only recently have these programmes begun to explore alternatives for the collection and safe disposal of these waste products.

Without proper care, even seemingly beneficial technologies such as solar power can come with a high price for health and the environment. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), in partnership with the UN Foundation and the World Bank, has been funding small-scale photovoltaic solar power projects for villages in Asia and Africa. Aimed at reducing global carbon emissions and providing sustainable energy at a reasonable cost, the programme facilitates low-interest loans for equipment purchases from subsidiaries of Shell, BP and other companies. The problem? All such systems rely on lead batteries for storage.

By depending on 19th century battery technology, these programmes are contributing to a global lead poisoning epidemic because they are failing to plan for the used batteries to be collected from remote villages and transported to environmentally sound recycling plants. As a result, this self-proclaimed sustainable technology will further contribute to a public health crisis that already affects three times more people than HIV/AIDS.
Prevention through design

Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are routinely performed by governments for
domestic programmes and by international lenders for large infrastructure projects to identify and mitigate environmental damage before projects are undertaken, but few public or private aid programmes screen proposals in this way. For example, microfinance institutions that provide small loans to micro-entrepreneurs generally do not have the tools to evaluate environmental and social impacts (which might be significant in activities such as chemical-intensive agriculture, automobile repair and small-scale mining). Further, current efforts to bring computers and the Internet to developing countries are relying on power from car batteries made of lead without considering how they are produced and recycled.

Most of these harmful outcomes could be predicted and most can be designed out or avoided. Potential tools for this include:
•    environmental impact assessments;
•    health impact assessments;
•    integrated impact assessments;
•    life-cycle assessments.

While environmental and health impact assessments focus on specific outcomes, integrated models consider all social, economic, environmental, health and other quality-of-life factors. Life-cycle assessment has a narrower objective, examining the raw inputs, energy consumption, reuse and disposal of a given product. Such an exercise can facilitate the selection of more environmentally beneficial computers, cars, healthcare equipment, and other products. All these approaches rely on an interdisciplinary scrutiny that requires expert opinions to be integrated with stakeholder and community involvement.

Certainly the World Bank and others have used environmental impact assessments in the design stage of infrastructure projects, taking into account their air, water, land, human health, safety, and even social aspects. However, the Bank delegates the responsibility for preparing these EIAs to government borrowers rather than to a neutral entity and provides oversight and review only after the completion of the EIA report. Generally the Bank’s applicants have more of a vested interest in seeing the loans approved and projects built than in dealing with concerns that may slow down or derail the effort.

Although few foundations have a routine screening process to look specifically at health, environmental or social outcomes, the traditional EIA can easily be adapted and carried out by independent consultants or staff working directly for the donor. They can be used to design strategies to mitigate some or all of the potential negative outcomes and can be tailored to fit the size, scope and nature of a development proposal.

Financial institutions have also developed general standards for screening investment decisions based on social and environmental criteria. The Equator Principles provide some minimum guidance to private investment, while the International Finance Corporation has developed more comprehensive industry-specific recommendations for environmental, health and safety that include performance targets. Although these programmes are not directly applicable to most donor assistance, they provide useful models for developing impact assessment tools.

Donors can also positively influence environmental quality with green purchasing programmes or other offsets. Some governments have begun to base purchasing decisions on environmental criteria such as recycled material content, energy efficiency, and less harmful chemical ingredients. Simple criteria may include looking at fuel consumption and emissions of vehicle fleets. An example of an offset would be to preserve appropriately located forestland to account for the carbon emissions from a given project.

Another approach to mitigating impact is to require all procurements in a project’s supply chain to obtain environmental and/or social certification based on an existing standard such as SA 8000 or the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) criteria for wood products where available. These measures include independent oversight and ensure minimum compliance with a basic code of practices.

A Hippocratic oath for philanthropy

No philanthropist intentionally distributes hazardous materials or expects their work to have a negative effect on health or the environment, yet without careful planning and scrutiny these can result from even innocuous-seeming development projects.

Philanthropy can play a leading role in reversing the trends that are creating an unhealthy environment throughout the developing world. Every funding agency can start by pledging, as the Hippocratic oath enjoins doctors, to ‘do no harm’, and take some concrete steps to integrate health protection, community concerns, and the environment into development projects. There is a growing recognition of the need for this type of prevention-through-design approach. Environment, health and social concerns should not be compromised because of poorly designed philanthropic efforts.

Comment  Rayna Gavrilova
I have often discussed the need for assistance-providing agencies to pay special attention to the post-project development of the initiatives they support, on the analogy that no investor in her/his right mind would spend money and forget about it the moment it is spent. Perry Gottesfeld’s article strikes me as another example of how such an obvious and commonsense thing, which people practise constantly in their everyday lives, can be overlooked by donors with the noblest intentions.

No family would buy a dishwasher without figuring out how its presence will affect the use of space or the size of the electricity bill. Unfortunately, we have all seen over the years many instances of good ideas backfiring with unintended consequences – maybe not as devastating as the provision of arsenic-poisoned wells, but even so the damage to public perceptions and social capital can be extremely difficult to neutralize.

Unfortunately this defective practice is not limited to donors; it affects legislations and gigantic public works too. The requirement to carry out environmental impact assessments has disciplined many public institutions but the concept of integrated impact assessment sounds like the order of the day for responsible grantmaking. The donor/non-profit community should assume the leadership position in this self-imposed responsibility. ‘Do good’ is the first commandment in the book of charities and international help organizations. The second one should truly be ‘Do no harm’. Rational assessment of anticipated consequences shouldn’t be that difficult.

Perry Gottesfeld is Executive Director of Occupational Knowledge International, San Francisco. Email okperry@gmail.com

Comments (28)

Amin Abdulahi Ahmed

Interesting write-up, also, the background of the people should be considered and the level of education which will determine how well informed they are in addressing problem which might arise (awareness) before a project should be set up for their benefit.


This is indeed an eye opener. A well intended project can backfire with unintended consequences.

Alex Richard Noti

Many of the challenges facing humankind, such as climate change, water scarcity, inequality and hunger, can only be resolved at a global level and by promoting sustainable development: a commitment to social progress, environmental balance and economic growth.


In order to make a good plan we have to look at PRA it means invelope all the community member at and the main thing is about prevention to do not think of one person treatment we should make all think about the prevention of a virus diseases or other .otherwise we have to sustainablely work for it if we train local people they will improve it to the next genration.

Zarghona Ahmadi

Great and informative article!

Oluwadahunsi Esther

An eye opening article. Great work


Very educative article. In most cases organization do not think how their actions could in a certain way lead to unintended results. For instance, in as much as donor support is very important for instance through agriculture input subsidy programs. This has led into over-dependence syndrome and promotion of a lazy society. These days most communities like in the case of Malawi, many development initiatives are thought to be done by organization and government even the little developments that can be done at a community level with any support are waiting for government and organisation due to laziness and over-dependence.

Mutassim Abdullah

Magnificent article. I want to tell you that through compassion and combined action we can create a better world, so that why I like to work with organizations, because helping Others is really means so much to me. Thanks a lot.


Great work

oluwadahunsi olaoluwa

This is intresting and eye opening article. Thanks for sharing

Anyway Wilson

Well elaborated piece of work.

Arooj Akram

This is an eye opening article Through which I came to know that there is a lot of harmful factors in way of our goodness and helpful nature that would effect it.


This is very useful information and an eye opener .one should first access its merits and demerits .regards


i thought when doing charity, its all about just doing good. now i know harm can come from doing good without proper environmental, health and social assessment. wonderful article, thanks.

Nonso Okaka

Integrated assessment is the answer to most unforeseen outcomes. A great article here. Thanks for sharing

Adam Umar Dutse

What an eye-opening message! This article so profound.

Cares n Shares

This article has shortly summarized the importance of balancing "DOING GOOD" AND "DOING NO HARM" while delivering social impact projects. And this can not be overemphasized at all.

Kenneth Ezeugwu

Very enlightening write up.


This is very educative and rich paper that I will recommend to my peers. Everyone really needs to be encouraging the integrated impact assessment.

Joyce Mukani

this is a profitable information It will help a lot in our organisation

Aouki Padox

This is inspiring and eye-opening

Arry Pongtiku

That is interesting article and very useful, practical to detect harmful outcomes

Ojima Wada

Lovely writeup!!! Thanks for this.


Interesting write-up, also, the background of the people should be considered and the level of education which will determine how well informed they are in addressing problem which might arise (awareness) before a project should be set up for their benefit.

george oduma

good article very elaboarate


A Good and informing article.Though it only deals with mainly health issues it should be realised that there are other unintended results like brainwashing, social discord ,social misconceptions, and cultural breakdown to mention but a few.

Elsa Djembissi Simo

To have a sustainable result in every action taken, we first have to take into consideration the design approach which is the protection of the environment, health, and communities commitments. Because when the damage is done, it gets very difficult to change the mindsets. Therefore, rational assessment of unintended consequences must be taken into consideration. This article is very interesting.

Imran Asghar

Nice Article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Analysis to read

What is a social justice foundation to do?

Barry Knight