“I participate. You participate. They decide”.

I will always be grateful to my former colleague Rachel Scott for lending me her book Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid (2012). I must confess its small size was the second thing that caught my eye right after the title. At the time I was so snowed under with work that I didn’t think I would have any time left for extra reading, let alone for extra work-related reading. Surprisingly, it wasn’t long before this precious little book kept me up at night and had me nodding in agreement at each page.

Time to Listen, written by Mary Anderson, Dayna Brown and Isabella Jean of the CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, captures the views of over 6,000 people receiving international aid, or development co-operation, in twenty countries. Regardless of where they lived, these people came to the same four conclusions: aid is a good thing that is appreciated; the way it is provided now doesn’t achieve its intended purpose; aid must change in fundamental ways to become more effective; and these changes for the better are within our reach.

Contrary to common belief, none of the people interviewed wanted external assistance in the first place, although they were grateful for it. Very few actually called for more aid, while almost everyone wanted to see ‘smarter’ ways of helping them. How smarter exactly? To start with, donors should spend more time in the communities they intend to help. Their simple presence would be seen as a sign that they care more about the people than the reports they so insistently demand. Providers should also give clearer information on their plans, their budgets and their exit strategies instead of hiding behind jargon or confidentiality clauses. Communicating with local communities should be a priority, particularly when it comes to non-written communication – those informal exchanges, face-to-face meetings and direct interaction that create the glue of any relationship: trust.

Anyone who has worked in a development or humanitarian programme knows these suggestions look great on paper but are far from easy to put in practice. The moment you call for a community meeting, you risk raising expectations of some form of assistance, despite all the disclaimers. If the consultation doesn’t lead to the decision to go ahead with a certain activity, like building a school, you may alienate people for good. Information is power and if you share it you need to be open to the idea of losing at least some control over the management of the project. Kind of difficult when you’re under pressure to deliver and are held accountable for the final results.

‘Time pressure’, ‘service delivery’ and ‘results’ keep coming up as major red flags throughout the interviews – ironically so, given the priority they normally enjoy in donor strategies. Everybody managing development projects seems so busy. Busy making sure the assistance provided delivers results that are so visible you can put a (donor) flag on them. Busy with meetings, reports, presentations and assessments to the point that those receiving help almost stand in the way of the finish line, asking to slow down and do something as intangible as listen. Even when aid recipients have the opportunity to speak and be heard, they seldom manage to influence decisions. “This is how the verb ‘to participate’ is conjugated” – joked a grassroots development worker from Ecuador – “I participate. You participate. They decide.”[1]

The findings from Time to Listen are critically important because they show the complexity of managing development co-operation on the ground without falling into easy stereotypes of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. There is a fundamental appreciation for the assistance given, a widespread belief that when aid is effective it can be a positive force in society, as has been the case with (surprise!) many women’s programmes around the world. In these exceptional cases, interviewees recognised that yes, international assistance was still perceived as an external factor but it had led men and women to develop a more positive attitude towards gender equality through extensive consultations, long-term focus and funding (if you’re interested in gender equality, you can read my previous post here).  It was aid at its very best – a sign of respectful solidarity.

Time to Listen is part of CDA’s Listening Program, which continues to share experiences and feedback on how aid can be improved from people living in developing countries in an effort to engage policy-makers and practitioners. The Listening Program also offers a full range of practical guidelines to learn how to listen in development and humanitarian contexts. I would love to see development platforms like the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation and the UN Development Co-operation Forum (UNDCF) – which is meeting in Uganda this week – have a proper discussion of these participatory methods. And then perhaps push donors and aid agencies to listen more, even if it means slowing down or not getting it right the first time.

[1] M. Anderson, et al., Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid, p. 69.

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About Farida Tchaitchian Bena

Farida T. Bena is an aid and development effectiveness expert, humanitarian and campaigner with 20 years' experience with non-governmental organisations (Oxfam, International Rescue Committee, CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness) and international organisations (UNICEF, OECD, European Commission). Farida's interests include citizen participation, social accountability and innovation in the global South. After having worked in about twenty countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, Farida is now based in Geneva, Switzerland.

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