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

7 responses to For Aid Effectiveness, People Matter

  • People indeed matter! Professional or amateur, we all need to do justice to the countless on-the-ground initiatives in the developing world that are well-run and making real long-term impact. I believe a deeper understanding of organizational development within the context of local, indigenous organizations in the developing world among NGO staff and donors is also key to unleashing the potential of these organizations, and to the effectiveness of international aid efforts in general.

    Donors continue to refer to the absorptive capacity needed to implement large-scale programs. However, I believe we must strive to create capacity building strategies that are fully grounded in the strengths that grassroots groups already have, like their deep contextual knowledge, community embeddedness, resourcefulness, language and cultural capacities, and the ability to operate in a responsive manner to local needs, which are those that NGOs and international donors often lack.

    Hence, the inter-dependence between CBOs and larger organizations should be acknowledged and thus both sides need to enhance their dialogue and relational capacities in order to engage with each other fruitfully. INGO and donor staff should first focus on building their own skills to accompany and support CBOs, rather than overpower or co-opt them. As such, a new set of fundamental skills are necessary for development practitioners. I believe the ability and penchant to understand and work with organizations of any size or type can and should become a core capacity of donors, governments, and all key stakeholders working on behalf of change.

    NGOs and donors must also require power asymmetries to be a larger part of their staff’s consciousness and performance measure in a more comprehensive and meaningful way. Also, donors and NGOs need to restructure and revise their accountability requirements to focus on the minimum structure and financial controls necessary, rather than asking CBOs to change.

    While CBOs may lack the accountability mechanisms and “sophisticated” procedures that would make them more recognizable or esteemed in the development sectors, more humility is needed to acknowledge the vision, structure, and impact that so many under-recognized and under-resourced local indigenous groups do have.

    Read more at:

  • [...] on the amateur vs. professional debate. This article is cross-posted from The Hauser Center’s Humanitarian & Development NGOs Domain blog with permission from both The Hauser Center and CDA Collaborative Learning [...]

  • Carol Gallo says:

    Great post, many thanks! This is something I’ve been trying to draw attention to as well– the importance of knowing as much as possible about the local context, and the importance of listening to, working with, and consulting the people who these projects are supposed to help.

  • Amy Bartlett says:

    Really interesting blog post! In the Open Forum for CSO Development Effectiveness, we are trying to do exactly what you are talking about: listening to CSOs from across the globe, and taking their voices to feed into international decision-making around aid and development effectiveness. Maybe we can find a way to collaborate?

  • John Coonrod says:

    Dayna – your points can never be stated too often or too strongly. It should seem obvious that “development starts with people” but you can read a lot of leading development books and miss that point. Development not only starts with people, it must start with their strengths. Jennifer alludes wisely to the strengths of the CBOs, but this applies equally to the strengths of the traditional cultures — cultures which have reviled by the modernizing sector. How many grant proposals start with a “strengths” statement as opposed to a “problem” statement?

    • Dayna says:

      John, Jennifer and others,
      I couldn’t agree more. There is so much local capacity in people and organizations (formal and informal) that really must be listened to and supported to make aid efforts and the entire development enterprise more successful. So what do we need to do to make sure that people are given more attention by donors, INGOs, governments, foundations, and others involved in development efforts? That it is not just the numbers that will tell the story of whether aid efforts make a difference–and that behind the increasing numbers and indicators that are tracked are people and organizations who are key to making sure that the progress is indeed sustained?

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