For Aid Effectiveness, People Matter
Posted on 09 November 2010
By Dayna Brown
I have been thinking lately about the importance of the people who are involved with international assistance efforts – and their knowledge, skills, attitudes, behaviors and values. There is much discussion about the need for “professionalization” of the field, with some suggesting certification should be required for people who want to do humanitarian or development work. Others are debating the merits of volunteers versus “professionals” (see here for a compilation of views).
While local people in aid recipient communities did not directly talk about these issues, the Listening Project did hear about how staff of international and local organizations shape people’s experiences with aid efforts and their perceptions of aid agencies and their effectiveness. Some noted that even the best designed programs can fail due to bad leadership, weak staff or poor relationships, while other programs succeed largely due to the people involved. Selecting and supporting good leaders and staff is particularly important when programs involve significant capacity strengthening.
I have had the honor of working and listening with many very talented and courageous local and international staff in a number of countries. Those who were most successful certainly had some level of skills or knowledge which could potentially be “certified.” However, just as importantly, they had great attitudes, deep commitment and a desire and willingness to learn – particularly about the local people, contexts and cultures.
In every place that the Listening Project visited, local people talked about how important it was for donors and international aid agencies’ staff to understand (or be willing to learn about) the local context and culture. They said that this was a key element in determining whether humanitarian and development efforts were effective. Those “outsiders” (expats and nationals) who took the time to learn the local languages were particularly appreciated, and often remembered many years later!
As a beneficiary in Timor-Leste said, “If foreign people speak Tetum, people think they care for and really want to hear you, listen to you, be friends – adapt to your situation through the language… Aid workers should be required to speak Tetum. If he knows the language, he can talk to anyone, not only the ones who speak the language of the donors. It is easy for the employees to talk to you if they have any problem – it creates a good environment in the workplace.”
While many aid agencies address this issue by hiring more national staff or working through local partners, local people in recipient communities think it is important for aid agencies to distinguish between local hires from within the beneficiary community or region and nationals from elsewhere in the country. To villagers in Ecuador, for example, “a technician or NGO staff person from Quito might seem to be as foreign and unlike themselves – in language, culture, dress, style, education, worldview or means of transportation – as an aid worker from Geneva or New York.”
People described the importance of local knowledge in designing appropriate and relevant projects, communicating effectively, ensuring staff impartiality and doing no harm. Local people in many places were concerned that local staff and partners often play significant roles in determining who benefits from aid efforts, and they suggested that the quality, impartiality and accountability of local staff and partners were very important for international staff and donors to monitor. This issue came up most often when local staff used their positions to prioritize assistance for their friends and relatives, or to hire people from the same ethnic or religious groups.
Many discussions on improving aid and development effectiveness are more focused on the programs and policies, but not as much on the people so engaged in this work. No matter where you come down on the debates about professionalization and volunteerism, there is no denying that people matter and the decisions aid agencies make on who works for and with them will have an effect.
To learn more about what the Listening Project heard on this issue, read our paper on The Role of Staffing Decisions. How big of a role do you think staff play in determining the effectiveness of international aid efforts?
Dayna Brown directs the Listening Project at CDA Collaborative Learning Projects. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.