Times are a Changin' in those who Fund Listening… then Doing
So you've been helped by an organization. You think it has a good mission and have actively participated in its activities yet one day (somewhat arbitrarily in your view), it takes you off its list, shuts its doors and moves to another state. What would you feel? Angry? Perplexed? Disappointed?
So a year or two goes by and you get a knock on your door from a similar organization, wanting you to participate with them, that their mission is great, that you will benefit a lot. While you may really want their help, you are understandably wary and wonder if the same will happen. Heck, the last ones didn't tell you why they left, even with unfinished work, nor came back to see how you were faring…
Maybe that won’t happen anymore. Until recently many of our international development participants (some call them beneficiaries) could feel the same way. Our projects came (and went) with set goals, on fixed funding cycles, with little ongoing input from them to influence how projects accomplishes good things, much less learned what happened after projects ended. Rarely have we put into place participant monitoring systems with feedback loops much less listen to participants on how to design for self-sustainability.…
But times are a changin'; there is much to celebrate among funders and implementers, programming and policy makers.
1) There is a happy blizzard of interest in listening to our participants. From Feedback Labs "committed to making governments, NGOs and donors more responsive to the needs of their constituents" and Rita Allen Foundation funding for the Center for Effective Philanthropy's "Hearing from those we seek to Help" to now the Rockefeller and Hewlett Foundation's Effective Philanthropy's beginning a joint Fund for Shared Insight which "provides grants to nonprofit organizations to encourage and incorporate feedback from the people we seek to help; understand the connection between feedback and better results…".
Independent voices abound that are advocating for participants' voices to be heard in design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation: "While we may have a glut of information and even the best of intentions, our initiatives will continue to fall short until we recognize that our ‘beneficiaries’ are really the people who have the solutions that both they and we need." And others call for even more than recognition – participation of the funders in discussions with participants: A recent study by the Center for Effective Philanthropy heard from recipient NGOs that the "funders who best understand our beneficiaries’ needs are the ones who visit us during our programs, meet [those[ served by our organization, spend time talking to them and being with them.”
2) Information and Communication Technologies for Development) has created options of listening to our project participants, learning from them/ with them through mobiles, tablets and other mechanisms (e.g. Catholic Relief Services' ICT4D 6th annual conference with presentations from donors and government as well, Ushahidi which we've celebrated before); IATI, the International Aid Transparency Initiative has spent 6 years fostering sustainable and foreign aid transparent development, now reaching 24 signatory countries, and 290 organizations. A data revolution is taking shape to join donor data, national government statistical data and civil society socio-economic data. There is a brand new initiative at IDS named Doing Development Differently. Listening and learning indeed!
3) And even more importantly, an understanding that development is not a one-size fits all endeavour, is arising. I blogged about Rwanda's success in nutritional impact from allowing communities to address their specific needs and this week New Republic published an excellent article by Michael Hobbes which says "The repeated “success, scale, fail” experience of the last 20 years of development practice suggests something super boring: Development projects thrive or tank according to the specific dynamics of the place in which they’re applied. It’s not that you test something in one place, then scale it up to 50. It’s that you test it in one place, then test it in another, then another." Hobbes goes on to add that what we need is a revision in our expectations of international aid. "The rise of formerly destitute countries into the sweaters-and-smartphones bracket is less a refutation of the impact of development aid than a reality-check of its scale. In 2013, development aid from all the rich countries combined was $134.8 billion, or about $112 per year for each of the world’s 1.2 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day. Did we really expect an extra hundred bucks a year to pull anyone, much less a billion of them, out of poverty?… Even the most wildly successful projects decrease maternal mortality by a few percent here, add an extra year or two of life expectancy there. This isn’t a criticism of the projects themselves. This is how social policy works, in baby steps and trial-and-error and tweaks, not in game changers."
4) What does change the game in the view of Valuing Voices is who we listen to and what we do, for how long. Often, project participants have been the implementers of our solutions rather than the drivers of their own ideas of development; much is lost in translation. As Linda Raftree reports from one Finnish Slush attendee, "“When you think ‘since people are poor, they have nothing, they will really want this thing I’m going to give them,’ you will fail:…“People everywhere already have values, knowledge, relationships, things that they themselves value. This all impacts on what they want and what they are willing to receive. The biggest mistake is assuming that you know what is best, and thinking ‘these people would think like me if I were them.’ That is never the case.” Hallelujah.
Let's listen before we implement our best answers, adapt to specific communities, think of how to foster self-sustainability rather than just successful impact, ask what that is in their terms. Let’s return to listen to participants’ views on sustained impact, on unexpected results… let’s fund this and do development differently!
So how are you listening to participants today?