The Theory-Practice Gap and My Trip to Cambodia

From the time I started at Georgetown, we have been discussing theories of Do No Harm, the debate between greed and grievance, relative deprivation, social identity theory, and many others. These theories have been shaped from years of psychological experiments, history, analysis, and experience. Honed to be as relevant to a situation as possible, they are excellent tools for a practitioner to keep in his or her toolbox to borrow from and use when the situation calls for it. The problem is that sometimes the theory is not relevant, or the theory is forgotten, or the practitioner fails to recognize when a theory needs to be used.

This gap between practice and theory is a very real problem that the conflict resolution field and many others have to overcome. While in Cambodia, we discussed issues like these including the tendency of western organizations and governments to impose their ideals. While I agree that practitioners of CR need to be aware of this predisposition in order to recognize it and avoid it, it is also important that students too do not commit these same offenses, even if we are not actively taking part in a development or peacebuilding project. As apprentices of this field, we need to study like we intend to practice. This is they way that the gap will be closed.

As my final semester has gotten underway, the discussion has moved to the idea of “the gap” and whether this is indeed a gap, or a chasm, or a valley, or cliff, or an abyss. We argue over semantics and what makes a practitioner a practitioner or differentiates a researcher from a theorist. While these are excellent mental exercises that help us understand each other and this nebulous field of conflict resolution, these words and phrases are not what define us. The symbol one choses to describe the apparent disconnect between theory and practice is, in my opinion, obsolete. It does not make the gap any less real. The gap is there in different forms and to varying degrees of severity and can be something different for the same person depending on the situation they are in. To avoid falling into the gap, we as students must hold ourselves to the same standard we project on practitioners already working.

Cambodia was a perfect moment to try and close this gap for future practitioners. We were able to see local organizations working in the culture that they are a part of and understood. As outsiders, we must learn to listen to theories of do no harm and others which give us clues to help the situation.

Do no harm is the most important to me as it, in its simplicity, gets us to think about our actions and possible ripple effects they could have on the local population. A moment where we witnessed a good “do no harm” organization was the Friends Restaurant that helps remove street children from the street and teaches them skills that will help them in their future. This restaurant offers children housing if they want it, it does not force a child who is accustomed to freedom into living under rules only to have them run away again. It requires that its vehicles, restaurants, and training be the best quality to ensure that their product (food) and their impact (the children) are appreciated and stand the best chance for success.

The most important thing I learned while in Cambodia is that actions have reactions and that the ripples of those actions spread out and can easily negatively impact a people. When things are done with the best of intentions but without thorough planning and close attention to detail, our good intentions can become very harmful. The most striking example of this ripple effect was how decades of geopolitics impacted individuals who had nothing to do with the Cold War and are still dying from its land mines. We saw tourist stands that perpetuated a system of poverty. We saw times when giving money to street children seemed like a generous action but it only encourages them to stay on the street rather than seek out a place like Friends. We saw times when giving children of families we met candy and food only to have the wrappers thrown on the ground add to the waste management problem.

I think that the gap between theories, like do no harm, and practice, like our trip to Cambodia, are perfect opportunities to help close this gap. When we realize that this principle is not only for acting practitioners, but rather that we as students must also adhere to it, the gap be closed.


Deborah Drew is a Master’s Candidate at Georgetown University studying Conflict Resolution. She is focusing on the private sector and its role in peacebuilding as well as corporate social responsibility.

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Tags: Cambodia, do no harm, theory-practice gap


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Comment by Adekunle Tinuoye on February 21, 2013 at 11:32am

Quite Interesting and topical for or in conflict resolution

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