Aid agencies should listen more to those in need

Published on IRINnews,  January 21, 2013.

For aid workers struggling to deliver assistance promptly and effectively, time to think, time to talk and time to listen are rare luxuries. But a new report from the US-based CDA Collaborative Learning Projects argues that making this time will be absolutely necessary to improving the quality and sustainability of international aid efforts.  

“Not until I spent three weeks staying in a village did I feel like I was getting truthful information about what the community really needed and wanted,” one worker in Lebanon told the researchers.

The project’s research team itself took a lot of time to engage with aid recipients, accompanied aid agency and NGO representatives in 20 different countries; the views of more than 6,000 people have been distilled into the new publication, ‘Time to Listen’.

Dayna Brown, who worked on the report, says she was most surprised by how consistent the responses were. “People described very similar experiences of the processes of international aid efforts,” she said. “And they explained how these processes often undermined the goals of assistance, in places that were as different as Zimbabwe to Burma, Angola, and East Timor.

“Overall, we found that international aid is a good thing, and it is appreciated, but that assistance as it is now provided is not achieving its intent – but that the changes needed are both possible and doable.”

Beneficiary perspectives: … //

… Need for flexibility:

Donors can exert a strong influence on the focuses and processes of aid agencies. Projects with government donors, for example, often place great importance on the need to be accountable and produce value-for-money, Brown said. Such aid work may be constrained by funding rounds, disbursement tranches, and the constant demand for project proposals and regular reports.

Brown told IRIN that she had seen major differences within the same organization, depending on whether it was spending government money. She said such organizations could take more time and be more flexible when spending money they had raised themselves.

Sean Lowrie, who leads the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies, argues that aid workers’ own mindsets are also to blame.

“There’s a mental model for emergency response. We feel that we must be rushing around to save lives, and it’s quite convenient because it gives us permission to operate without getting into the messiness and inconvenience of beneficiary opinion,” he said.

“Also, donors have bought into this myth that they need to be focused to be effective, and this translates into conditionalities and earmarking, and these cascade from donor to UN to NGO to local NGO, and by the time the money gets to the front line, it’s very difficult to respond to local priorities,” Lowrie continued.

He said his own organization had worked to persuade donors to provide non-earmarked funding. “By having this pot of money,” he said, “we were able to save more lives.”

Wendy Fenton, coordinator of the Humanitarian Policy Network, who has spent 25 years working in international humanitarian and development aid, says the ideas in ‘Time to Listen’ are important and timely. “I think we should take it seriously,” she told IRIN.

“It comes from the same group, led by Mary Anderson, which originated the ‘Do No Harm’ concept in international assistance, and that is still there and it did have impact. I am optimistic that this will have that same kind of impact, because the problems of not listening have been talked about a lot in over the last five years or so. ‘Time to Listen’ will resonate with people because these issues are already being widely discussed in the humanitarian community.”
(full text).


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