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Listening and Learning

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A recent post "If you can flip a coin, can you be an expert?" got a mostly favorable response, but I want to elucidate and emphasize a few things in this post and the next.

First, listening to communities should be the foundation of any aid initiative. What community members want for their lives should be the starting point. Though aid agencies may not be equipped to address a problem such as security, the fact that security is of great concern to the community should inform what projects get funded and how they are designed.  For example, if security for women is a big issue, then the design and placement of wells or standpipes is critical.  Or if social tensions are high between certain groups, then great care needs to be taken to design projects that don't exacerbate these tensions.

Second, though there are some outstanding exceptions, as a rule we don't yet do enough listening.  A recent study by Alex Jacobs and Robyn Wilford concluded that "most NGOs do not manage 'participation' or 'downward accountability' in a systematic way."  It noted that a "number of pioneering innovations are emerging...[but] most are still in the experimental stage..."  It cites the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership's 2007 Standard as offering a constructive approach, along with pilots being conducted by the NGO Keystone.  GreatNonProfits is also piloting an approach that listens to a broader set of stakeholders.  NGOs are not alone in not listening enough.  I can speak from long years of experience that listening is an even greater challenge for official aid agencies such as the World Bank, ADB and USAID.

Third, most aid workers are trying to do the right thing, but they usually have to spend a lot of time and energy managing upwards within their own bureaucracies.  The Jacobs and Wilford study cited above discusses these dynamics, which will be familiar to staff of NGOs and official agencies alike. In short, the incentives for listening to communities are attenuated at best.

Fourth, listening is hard.  Power dynamics sometimes mean that community members don't say exactly what is on their mind.  In response to a question, they may say what they think the donor or implementing agency (or local official) wants to hear. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, we are working with Cognitive Edge on an indirect approach that relies more on storytelling to infer what people really think.  More details on that will follow. Though this approach is by no means the whole answer, the initial results are encouraging.

Fifth, listening is messy.- There is no single "community."  Community members usually differ on what is most important to them, and the question arises about how to decide to whom you should listen. Should initiatives be decided on majority vote?  In addition, sometimes donors or implementers with a lot of experience feel strongly that a certain approach desired by community members won't work, and that there is a better way.  Should the donor or implementer over-ride the wishes of the community, or should they err on the side of accepting the community's wishes so that learning can take place if the project does not work?  Again, there is no easy answer to this -- there needs to be a balance.  On this topic, I recommend David Ellerman's Helping People Help Themselves.

I suspect that the ability to listen is one of the most important factors determining whether aid workers can have a positive -- and lasting -- impact on a community. That is why we are trying to help the project organizations on GlobalGiving listen better to the communities they serve. As always, I welcome comments on this topic.