Have you seen the great, new, free book: Time to Listen, by Mary B Anderson, Dayna Brown and Isabella Jean. It presents a vast research exercise on what the people who receive aid say about our work. It’s a powerful critique and evidence that we – as NGOs and donors – ignore at our peril.
The researchers listened to 6,000 people who live in countries that receive aid. This serious effort was undertaken from 2005 to 2009, by the consistently thoughtful CDA Collaborative Learning Projects. (Mary B Anderson is the author of Do No Harm.)
The authors found remarkable consistency in what people said. They were appreciative of aid, but thought it was not working as well as it should. The way aid was given undermined its effectiveness.
The book summarises that this huge number of people say that “the system of international assistance is deeply flawed” in two ways:
- It is organised as a delivery system, from ‘providers’ to ‘receivers’.
- It relies too much on blueprint approaches, which don’t work in different contexts.
A new approach …
The authors conclude with a rousing call to a new approach:
“The idea of international assistance needs to be redefined away from a system for delivering things and reinvented to support collaborative planning [and action].”
This would start with an analysis of what people already have, not what they need. It would reject pre-planned projects and standardised procedures. It would include a broad analysis of context and an open exploration of options for action.
I love this overall conclusion. I believe it and recognise it as a huge change from the reality of how aid is managed today. It directly fits with other serious commentaries, like the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition’s report (2007), Wallace’s The Aid Chain (2006), Ellerman’s Helping People Help Themselves (2005) and Chambers’ Whose Reality Counts (1997).
I started to write that it cannot be ignored. But like these other books, it can – and there’s all too great a risk that it will. For aid agencies, business as usual is an option. What will be different this time?
The new paradigm that the book calls for is part of the solution. It needs to be honed to be as simple and compelling as the narratives it aims to replace: “we give poor people things they need” and “our impact is social change”. That’s a tough standard.
… but how do we get there?
The solution also needs organisational tools and systems to put the new approach into practice. This is one of the most urgent priorities facing the sector today: what exactly should managers do?
I strongly agree with the authors’ general suggestions for improving how aid agencies work, such as:
- Make time for listening and reflection.
- Hire staff with the right values and commitment.
- Evaluate staff on the quality of relationships with collaborators and what recipients say about results.
- Start programme planning with genuine listening and collaboration.
- Simplify policies and procedures, and make them more flexible.
- Worry less about spending the original budget.
But they leave me with two big questions.
One. What factors push managers the other way? Why do we in aid agencies find it so hard to achieve these things? Senior managers need systems to manage diverse and complex operations. They are under pressure to handle relationships with demanding donors and spend budgets. Organisations have a strong urge to grow fast. It is all too human to tell people what to do, rather than listen. We need an analysis of these factors, to complement Time to Listen, so we can manage them in line with the new paradigm.
Two. What alternatives do we want agencies to use? We need specific management tools and systems that put the new paradigm – and our core values – into practice. There are very few serious contenders on offer. I’m a fan of Outcome Mapping and excited by the prospect of customer feedback. As a sector, we urgently need to come up with better ways of defining and assessing performance, that create the right accountabilities for everyone involved.
This book brings us to the brink of change. It’s a terrific addition to the literature and a must-read for any serious donor or NGO manager. It leaves us with the challenge of how to tackle these questions, so we build a road on from our old ways.