Listening to People on the Receiving End of Aid
Posted on 01 September 2010
This is the first in a series of blog posts on the work and findings of the Listening Project, which organized over 20 Listening Exercises in various contexts and regions since late 2005. The Listening Project is a systematic exploration of the insights of people who live in societies receiving international assistance (humanitarian assistance, development cooperation, peace-building activities, human rights work and environmental conservation). More than 130 international and local organizations contributed over 400 staff members to Listening Teams that held conversations with nearly 6,000 people over the last 5 years.
By Dayna Brown
The Listening Project has listened to the experiences and reflections of a wide range of local people (and not just “key stakeholders”), including aid recipients, community members and leaders, government officials, civil society and religious representatives, teachers, health workers, business people, academics, NGO and CBO staff, women, and youth.
Each Listening Exercise produced a report that captures in rich detail the stories, opinions and perspectives of local people on the cumulative effects of international assistance on their lives and their societies. The Listening Project is now analyzing the evidence from these conversations and is writing Issue Papers which highlight some of the common concerns that were raised by people across these locations.
What has been most striking to us is that how people experience international assistance and the system that they describe is remarkably similar across geographical areas and contexts.
While donors and aid agencies have committed to involving aid recipients more and to improving accountability (through the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, the Accra Agenda for Action, the Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative, the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership, etc.), we found that most donors and aid agencies do not spend much time listening to local people’s perspectives or reflecting on the impacts of their work, much less the cumulative effects of their and others’ interventions. Several people in different places said, “no one has ever asked us our opinion of aid before this.”
As the Listening Project analyzed the evidence from these Listening Exercises, we found that the current aid system limits opportunities and incentives for listening in open-ended ways to people on the receiving end of aid efforts. The head of an INGO on the Thai-Burma border captured the challenges when she said, “Donors demand task focused work. Staff would love to have more time to talk to people in the camp, to spend the night in the camp (which is not allowed). But we have reports due, with facts, and numbers, and it needs to be right to keep the funding coming. Some NGOs are run like businesses. The donors are not helping us be respectful because they come with their new ideas, trends and we have to jump….We end up with ridiculous time frames to do things. We cut out the process and spend the rest of the year doing damage control.”
While there is increasing discussion on how to improve the effectiveness of aid efforts, the current aid system is still more focused on delivering goods and services efficiently—and this has an effect on the ways agencies and their staff listen, what they listen for, and where, when and to whom they listen. Most agencies listen only to people who are in (not outside of) the chain of delivery and they listen primarily for assessments of efficiency or effectiveness of their projects.
While Listening Teams have heard lots of feedback on specific project details, people everywhere consistently expressed concerns that seemed to go deeper than particular programming flaws. They say that aid agencies should “invest the necessary time”, “go more slowly”, and “listen to people” in order to “learn about the real circumstances”, “get to know people”, and “show respect for people’s ideas and opinions.”
People have equated better listening with better outcomes and longer-term impacts. We have much to learn by listening to their ideas about how to improve the effectiveness of international assistance efforts.
Dayna Brown directs the Listening Project at CDA Collaborative Learning Projects. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.