Listen, someone important is trying to tell us something

Stephen Hall -

What do you learn when you ask people about their personal experiences with international assistance efforts and make a genuine effort to listen to their answers? What do they say when you ask which approaches have been most effective and which not? What does that tell us about how things should change? I read “Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid” and found answers to these questions.

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“If you ask me what my priority needs are and I tell you, but then you bring me other things instead, I will take them, but you did not help me.”
– Farmer near Timbuktu, Mali

“This is how the verb ‘to participate’ is conjugated: I participate. You participate. They decide”.
– Indigenous businessman and grassroots development worker, Ecuador

It’s truism that, in conversation, instead of listening, most of us are deciding what we’re going to say next. Yet, despite how hard most of us find it, the benefits of really listening to what people say are huge, especially when you are talking to people you are trying to help. It was in recognition of this that The Listening Project was established.

Funded by a consortium of aid agencies, The Listening Project was an effort to accumulate and synthesise insights from almost 6,000 people who have first hand experience, or have directly observed, the results of international assistance. Covering 21 countries it is probably one of the most comprehensive efforts to evaluate on the ground experience of how development really works. Time to Listen by Mary Anderson, Dayna Brown and Isabella Jean summarizes the project and its findings. The results are telling.

What particularly struck me about the project is, not only the systematic approach to gathering information it adopted, but more especially the attention that was paid to identifying and avoiding the many pitfalls for a project of this kind. How, for example, in an effort to respectfully listen to so many people, can you ensure that even the least articulate are heard? How do you ensure that biases, contradictions and inconsistencies are weighed and dealt with appropriately? How do you accommodate cultural differences in how disagreement or concerns are expressed? These are tough challenges, but the careful training of project staff, thorough documentation of both processes and findings, and the systematic collaborative analysis of results leave one confident that the project findings genuinely represent, in the authors words, the “cumulative voice” of aid recipients.

“Some international NGOs come with their own agendas and are driven and influenced by the priorities set by their donors.”
– Local person, Thailand.

So what was the key message of that cumulative voice?

About the current state of aid, I think it can be summarized in one sentence: “We appreciate receiving international aid, but the way you provide it means it fails to do what it is supposed to.” This is an important message. It means that, despite the determination of aid agencies to maximize the impact achieved for the money spent, they could do much better.

As one would expect, the reasons for this failure are many, as the authors lay out in a series of chapters. Dealing with topics such as supply focused agendas, the baroque nature of aid disbursement procedures, corruption, and approaches to partnership; they paint a disappointing picture of our approach to aid. The liberal addition of direct quotes from aid recipients add a richness to each chapter and one is bound to conclude that this is realistic diagnosis of how things are.

But, given this prevailing situation, the more important question is what needs to change? And it is here that the real value of this book lies. Drawing a clear line of sight from diagnosis of the problems, the clear message is that we need to move from an externally driven aid delivery system to one that is much more collaborative.

Underlying their recommendations, the authors argue, is a Theory of Change in which international assistance should aim to expand the range of options that people in beneficiary societies can consider, engage with them in weighing the costs and benefits of each option and, from this, co-develop and co-implement a joint strategy for pursuing the changes they seek. In essence, this represents a shift from an externally driven aid delivery system to a much more collaborative approach. To be clear about what such a shift implies I can do no better than summarize a table from the book’s last chapter:

Externally driven aid delivery system Collaborative aid system
Local People Beneficiaries and aid recipients Colleagues and drivers of their own development
Focus on Identifying needs Supporting/reinforcing capacities and identifying local priorities
Spending on predetermined schedule Fit money and timing to strategy and realities on the ground
Growth Planned drawdown and mutually agreed exit/end of assistance strategy
Program planning Pre-planned/pre-determined Context relevant, developed jointly by recipient communities and aid providers
Decision making Provider driven Collaborative
Staff evaluation and rewards Managing projects on time and on budget Quality of relationships and results that recipients say make lasting positive changes in their lives
Monitoring, evaluation, and follow up By providers on projects spending and delivery of planned assistance By providers and recipients on the results and long-term effects of assistance

Adopting these recommendation represents a profound shift in how international aid is provided and we should not underestimate the challenge that such a transformation represents. As a research institution for example, we are all too aware that prevailing notions of oversight and accountability emphasise explicit definition of deliverables at the project approval stage. But there is a tension between this and having the flexibility a research in development approach needs to adapt to evolving circumstances. Finding the balance between a legitimate need to understand and agree on what money will be spent on and a flexible approach to aid provision is hard, but it is an example of what the leadership of donor agencies, supported by development practitioners, will have to push for with their political masters.

“Everything is decided before you start the project. Some donors come to us with ready-made objectives so we have to channel them into our objectives. Once you get funded as a local NGO, you are strangled by the conditions you imposed on yourself in the proposal.”
– Local NGO staff, Lebanon.

In fairness, one can find some cases where such approaches have been adopted and supported by aid agencies. In the CGIAR Research Program on Aquatic Agricultural Systems, for example, WorldFish and our partners are pursuing a Research in Development paradigm that aligns with many of the recommendations above [1,2] and also are giving “voices” to the people in the program area. But such approaches are far from the norm and making them commonplace will require a sustained effort to shift prevailing notions of how the international aid system should work.

The voices of those on the receiving end are telling us that making those changes is essential. If we want international aid to be as effective as it can be and deliver the development impacts everyone wants to see we should listen to them and act.


Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid, by Mary Anderson, Dayna Brown and Isabella Jean is published by CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, Cambridge, MA 02138.

[1] Re-imagining agricultural research in development
[2] Development in difficult places – how do we reach the billion people that have been left behind?

Stephen Hall

Stephen Hall

Stephen Hall's previous leadership roles include CEO of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and Professor of Marine Biology at Flinders University, Australia. Stephen has served on several international advisory panels and, in 2010, was a member of a global team overseeing the reform of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Recognized as a leading scientist in his field, he has contributed more than 80 scientific publications on fisheries ecology and environmental issues as well as a highly cited book on the environmental effects of fishing. In 2004, Stephen was awarded a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation and he continues to investigate and write on the roles and potential of fisheries and aquaculture for supporting international development objectives. In 2005, he was awarded the Australian Public Service Medal for leadership of AIMS. Stephen holds a Ph.D. in Marine Ecology from St. Andrews University and a B.S. in Marine Biology and Biochemistry from University of Wales, Bangor.

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