Listening to People on the Receiving End of Aid

I am thrilled to cross-post a briefing from an important series on the work and findings of the Listening Project, which began today at the Harvard Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations’ Humanitarian & Development NGOs Domain blog.

Below is a briefing of the initial findings and I urge my readers to stay tuned as they continue to be shared. Barefoot Economics’ recent post also demonstrates a wonderful example of what we can learn when aid recipients can provide their genuine feedback.

Here’s to all those willing to listen.


The Listening Project is a comprehensive and systematic exploration of the ideas and insights of people who live in societies that have been on the recipient end of international assistance efforts (humanitarian assistance, development cooperation, peace-building activities, human rights work, environmental conservation, etc.).

The Listening Project has organized over 20 Listening Exercises in various contexts and geographical regions since late 2005, including Aceh (Indonesia), Afghanistan, Angola, Bolivia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, East Timor, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Kenya, Kosovo, Lebanon, Mali, Mindanao, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Thai-Burma border area, US Gulf Coast, and Zimbabwe. More than 130 international and local organizations have participated and contributed more than 400 staff members to the Listening Teams that held conversations with nearly 6,000 people.

These teams listened to the experiences and reflections of a wide range of local people in recipient societies (community members and leaders, government officials, civil society and religious leaders, teachers, health workers, business people, academics, NGO and CBO staff, women, youth, etc.) to gather their perceptions of international aid efforts. Each Listening Exercise produced a report (available on the CDA website) that captures what people have said as they shared their experiences and thoughts on the cumulative effects of international assistance on their lives and their societies. The Listening Project is now analyzing the evidence from these exercises and is writing Issues Papers that highlight some of the common concerns that are raised by people across these locations. Following are a number of issues that they feel need to be addressed in order to make international assistance efforts more effective, including:

1. People appreciate the assistance, but want greater focus on achieving long-term impacts. In every location, people consistently expressed appreciation for international assistance efforts. However, with all of the money and time that has been spent (particularly in post-conflict and post-disaster settings where significant sums have been invested by the international community), people expected to see greater improvements and more lasting impacts on their lives. As a government official in Kosovo said, “Without aid, we could not survive and there would be no life in Kosovo. It is not fair to say that no difference was made, but what was possible was not exactly what was done.”

2. The systems and structures of international assistance (the “business model”) are too focused on the quick and efficient delivery of goods and services and not enough on relationships. People in all places talk about how donors and aid agencies are more focused on spending money quickly rather than on spending it well, and that in this haste they often do not spend enough time to establish and maintain effective relationships with their local partners (whether governmental or non-governmental) and those they are intending to help. As a coordinator of a Lebanese NGO said, “We need strategic, long-term partnerships with donors. The impact doesn’t come overnight. We need to know that we can rely on their support not only tomorrow. If they want to make a change that lasts, they need to start taking longer breaths.”

3. External agendas, priorities, fads and trends determine the types of assistance people receive or can access, but are often disconnected to the realities on the ground. As a local government official in Sri Lanka said, “Participatory planning is just a phrase. Money and time are limited from the donor side and an agenda has already been set long before agencies go into communities.” People resent “pre-packaged” approaches and projects, and complain that aid agencies do not consider the local context, resources and capacities when making decisions regarding their assistance. As an observer in Kenya said, “The weakness of donors is to sit somewhere and read reports. Quite often, donors assume they know every problem and can therefore prescribe solutions.”

4. People in recipient societies want more ownership and to play a more active role in their own development, saying that they want to “discuss together, decide together, and work together.” In calling for more ownership and effective participation, people in recipient societies want aid providers to be transparent and open to discussing all aspects of their assistance efforts, including: the local context; agendas (external and internal); mutual expectations; theories of change and the assumptions behind different approaches; process and criteria for beneficiary/project selection; constraints/limitations; implementation plans; the changing dynamics/context; and finally, exit strategies. People are also concerned about “who” participates and how they are chosen, saying that selected “representatives” are often not representing local people’s interests or providing information back to people. The importance of local participation is particularly important in places affected by conflict. As a local peacebuilding practitioner in Mindanao said, “There are multiple stakeholders in the peacebuilding and development process. Many local actors are initiators and leaders on the ground. But a genuine grassroots organizing process can only be achieved and sustained when the government and international partners are collaborating and agree on the aims.”

5. People are more concerned about “how” assistance is provided than how much is given. Almost everywhere, people talk about the significant amounts of waste and mismanagement of resources in the aid system, and they suggest that agencies should combine their resources to address poverty and other systemic issues rather than fund individual projects or piecemeal solutions. In several different places, people have described the wasteful “bottleneck” effect of international assistance being passed from donors to international NGOs or contractors, to local NGOs or sub-contractors, to community-based organizations. As the last in line, the people in communities who are the intended beneficiaries often get just a tiny sip. Similar complaints have been echoed regarding budget support to national governments that may not trickle down.

6. Donors have often built “project societies” not “civil societies.” While there has been more focus on supporting and building local capacity, people in many places complain of the growing number of intermediaries who are seeking funding for projects but who may not have a local constituency. While more reliance on local organizations/contractors is often appreciated, in many places people have complained about the lack of oversight and that the increased funding has helped create too many “briefcase” NGOs, sub-contractors, and consultants, rather than a strong civil society as is often intended by the donors. People in communities generally do not have a choice about who works with them or is funded by donors or the government, and there is little accountability as the money passes through so many different (and often “sticky”) hands.

7. The aid system limits opportunities and incentives for listening in open-ended ways. Since the aid system is designed to deliver goods and services efficiently, most agencies listen only to people who are in (not outside of) the chain of delivery and they listen primarily for assessments of efficiency or effectiveness of their projects. While listening teams have heard lots of feedback on specific project details, people everywhere consistently expressed concerns that seemed go deeper than particular programming flaws. They say that aid agencies should “invest the necessary time”, “go more slowly”, and “listen to people” in order to “learn about the real circumstances”, “get to know people”, and “show respect for people’s ideas and opinions.”

8. People in recipient societies place a high value on the presence of international assistance agencies, saying that “being here matters.” People want staff of aid agencies to be present to 1) better understand the local needs, priorities and resources; 2) determine who should receive assistance; 3) monitor projects, partners, and progress; 4) evaluate the long-term impacts and the sustainability of aid efforts; 5) share and learn from each other (there are many calls for more solidarity and mutual accountability); and 6) to show respect.

9. People matter and the staff of international and local aid agencies shape people’s experiences with international assistance efforts. Whether speaking of international or local staff, understanding of the specific culture, context and local community is highly valued and seen as essential to effective programming. While many people recognize the positive intentions, questions were raised about the incentives to do aid work and the processes used to select, train, evaluate and reward staff, and to truly use and build local capacity. As a man in Ecuador said, “Competition among NGO staff to be hired and then to have power, influence and control over institutional resources can create scenarios of corruption and unethical values.”

Links to Other Reports and Issues Papers from The Listening Project:

International Assistance as a Delivery System

Structural Relationships in the Aid System

The Cascading Effects of International Agendas and Priorities

The Importance of Listening

Presence: “Why Being Here Matters”

“Discuss Together, Decide Together, Work Together”

The Role of Staffing Decisions

For more information contact the Listening Project Director: Dayna Brown at


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Comment by Jennifer Lentfer on September 3, 2010 at 7:36am
My perspective is that the primary job of all those involved in international assistance is to listen. Unfortunately, relationships too often take a backseat to deliverables and logframes in relief and development aid. Indeed, this study tells many of us what we already have learned (often the hard way) but I'm hoping that because it was carried out with the all-important rigour of a third party, it can gain some recognition among the key decision-makers who deem verifiable research as the only reason to make the changes needed in the sector to truly put the people we are trying to "help" in the driver's seat. Yes, unfortunately, we have a long way to go to make this a reality but I hope this can help us get there.
Comment by Suzanne V. Buchanan on September 3, 2010 at 5:14am
I find it so disheartening that it took a study to realize this. It's good if the development industry pays attention to it and possibly it will, but truthfully we should all be working to put ourselves out of business, to build the capacity of populations so they end their dependence upon assistance and master their destiny. The fact that very few development organizations have put themselves out of business by succeeding should be our first clue to some of the many problems in the field. Listening to recipient populations is just good common sense. Workers involved with any stage of program design and execution should have their ears to the ground in the field, not from reports.
Comment by Anne-Marie Judson on September 2, 2010 at 1:02pm
Very interesting thank-you for making this available to us all ... Goes to show how people need to not only listen more but to effectively implement decision making to the right people at the right time.

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