Valuing Voices That Change the World… Why?

Why have I cared for them so? I started interviewing scores of people in all corners of Nigeria when I wrote grant proposals for an amazing Bishop (now Cardinal Onaiyekan) in Ilorin Diocese in 1987. I wanted to get resources to those in need by getting their stories across to grant givers.  Their wisdom and resilience remained with me and a few years later inspired me to write my PhD "Listening To One's Clients: a Political Analysis of Mali’s Famine Early Warning Systems". In this work too I talked to hundreds of people about whether famine monitoring systems were tracking the 'right' indicators of need, whether they got aid to them in time, etc. (Finding: they looked at the right food insecurity information, but donors didn't care enough at the time to prevent, rather they only reacted to proof of descent into full famine.)  

After lots more qualitative interviews, assessments, evaluations across Africa, Latin America, the Balkans for some great international non-profits, eventually I got trained in Appreciative Inquiry to bring celebration to qualitative interview methods. This all helped me to listen better, to search for the voices harder to hear (women, youth, elderly, orphans). I've lead Appreciative Learning exercises and qualitative research at donors like USAID in Washington and in their Missions, with senior country-national policy makers in a dozen countries for innovative projects funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and with communities in 26 countries around the world through non-profits. Many people in international development feel voiceless – within institutions themselves.

These experiences have come from my passion to listen, distill and disseminate. Lately I've become driven to add to evaluation by listening to communities after projects end, after we all go home. We need to know what remains, what do they value enough to keep doing with their own resources, or what do they create anew from seeds projects planted in their minds?  We need to listen and learn, they don't have time to waste.

So what drives me? Like many others, working in the field, sloshing through muddy sewage -slums and walking through dusty villages, driving by acres of sparsely-sown Sahelian fields, seeing families struggle as well as thrive in conditions that would fell me. My desire to foster compassion for those voiceless in development and wanting to have their voices heard comes from traveling abroad since a young child – noticing I was a 'have' and most other people were 'have nots'. It also comes from being raised by charming, negligent alcoholic parents who were unable to listen to much of anything other than their addiction's needs. I was voiceless; rarely did anyone listen to my (seemingly sage) advice much less what I needed to thrive, much like the participants Itry to serve. It also comes from my nourishing Buddhist practice and community; they help me see that we all 'inter-are' – that all beings are connected and one. I've seen we have a responsibility to help others as we wish to be helped. All faiths have this basic tenet along the lines of 'do unto others as would be done by'.

So what drives you to want the world to be a better place? Where does your work heal old wounds? Where do you feel a longing for deeper interconnection? I'm listening, we all are…