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

9 responses to Listening to People on the Receiving End of Aid

  • [...] I am thrilled to cross-post a briefing from an important series on the work and findings of the Listening Project, which began today at the Harvard Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations’ Humanitarian & Development NGOs Domain blog. [...]

  • John Coonrod says:

    Hello, Dayna – I think the problem is deeper than stated here, and (at least in the development sector) is a fundamental misidentification of who should own the development process. If we begin with the recognition that people must be the primary authors and actors in their own development, rather than “beneficiaries” (a word we should eradicate from our vocabularies) – and that our only legitimate job as outsiders can be to support people’s building their own capacities, then listening is not a mere monitoring mechanisms but at the heart of the work.

    • Dayna says:

      Hi John,
      I completely agree and have been surprised at how many agencies and their staff have not seen listening as a core function and responsibility. There are many examples and stories in our reports on how people do not feel listened to nor in the drivers’ seat when it comes to their own development. People also comment on the roles they would like to see outsiders play–as facilitators, catalyzers, supporters, etc.–but that they want to drive the agenda.

  • Right on! Thanks to all those who’ve worked tirelessly over these last few years to bring these findings to the attention of the humanitarian and development sector. I’ve cross-posted this on my blog and I hope it helps to bring more people to not only read, but internalize these insights from The Listening Project in our day-to-day work.

    I’m also currently working on a project that will build an online community for the Barefoot Guide to working with organizations & social change (, which I hope can widely be used as a tool to support all of us in the sector to listen more effectively.

    Keep up the great work and do let me know if I can support your efforts in any other way!

    • Dayna Brown says:

      Thanks, Jennifer, for your support of our effort and for spreading the word!! We would welcome specific feedback on any of the Issues Papers we have written so far–they are on our website and begin to highlight some of the important and common themes we heard across the various countries. Keep up the good work too!

  • Ramesh Singh says:

    Many thanks for this opportunity.
    An important project and initiative.
    I hope/wish that this will be a good discussion.
    After a quick browse through the initial finding of the project (but without reading other documents), my comments and questions:
    1. Issue is not only about one-way listening or not but the space, modes and methods of discussion, debate and negotiations.
    2. Did they not say anything about the internal (country, community) context and situations (politics, governance, corruption, fragmented civil society etc.) that constrain or complicate or diminish the impact of aid and assistance or you just focused on ‘listening’ by aid/assistance chain?
    4. A more considered discussion will be possible when we have the final report that disaggregates (geographical, country types, nature/agency of aid/assistance etc) and specifies the results.
    5. Will the final report also highlight issues related to nature, scale, allocation, channel etc. of aid/assistance or just whether who is listening or not?
    I look forward to reading and engaging more.

    • Dayna Brown says:

      Ramesh, you are right that this is just the tip of the iceberg and there is much more detail in our field visit reports and issues papers. To answer your questions:
      1. These are all important topics. Cultural issues came up a lot as well as much about power dynamic. Several of these are discussed in our “Importance of Listening” Issues Paper”.
      2. Absolutely, people talked about their contexts and the effects on aid efforts, but it was interesting how many of their experiences with aid efforts were similar across very different contexts.
      4 and 5. the final report will highlight many of these issues, though we are not comparing projects or agencies, but rather looking at the cumulative effects. That being said, we will highligh particular approaches, issues, etc. that have been particularly positive (or negative).
      We welcome your and others’ feedback on the reports we have done and the Issues Papers written so far–all are on our website.

  • [...] Sep “The Listening Project” by Harvards’ Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations shouldn’t feel novel, revolutionary and genius. This should be common practice! Or, until [...]

  • [...] priorities rather than the needs of the people we’re trying to help. The main finding of the Listening Project, which sought out the voices of people on the receiving end of aid, is that people in many [...]

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