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Report calls on aid agencies to listen to, work with, beneficiaries

A UNHCR member of staff discusses accommodation with colleagues and displaced people at the Ohn Taw Gyi IDP camp near Sittwe, capital of Rakhine state
UNHCR has struggled to deliver services to urban refugees (UNHCR/P.Behan)

For aid workers struggling to deliver assistance promptly and effectively, time to think, time to talk and time to listen are rare luxuries. But a new report from the US-based CDA Collaborative Learning Projects argues that making this time will be absolutely necessary to improving the quality and sustainability of international aid efforts.

“Not until I spent three weeks staying in a village did I feel like I was getting truthful information about what the community really needed and wanted,” one worker in Lebanon told the researchers.

The project’s research team itself took a lot of time to engage with aid recipients, accompanied aid agency and NGO representatives in 20 different countries; the views of more than 6,000 people have been distilled into the new publication, ‘Time to Listen’.

Dayna Brown, who worked on the report, says she was most surprised by how consistent the responses were. “People described very similar experiences of the processes of international aid efforts,” she said. “And they explained how these processes often undermined the goals of assistance, in places that were as different as Zimbabwe to Burma, Angola, and East Timor.

“Overall, we found that international aid is a good thing, and it is appreciated, but that assistance as it is now provided is not achieving its intent - but that the changes needed are both possible and doable.”

Beneficiary perspectives

“With all the international aid that came,” said a health worker in the Philippines, “we were really thankful, because even though we are here, far from them, we appreciate that they think of us.”

This feeling about international aid is common, especially when help first arrives, the report says. But it also causes frustration when recipients find they have little opportunity to build any kind of mutual relationship with their benefactors.

The aid often passes through a long chain - from donors, to international aid agencies, local NGOs and community-based organizations - before it reaches its destination. The organizations’ needs assessments, project appraisal visits and even community participation meetings seldom allow enough time and space for true dialogue.

Brown and her colleagues found that individual projects were usually seen as beneficial, but when people - particularly those who have experienced many projects by different agencies or who have received international aid over many years - were given the chance to reflect on their overall experiences, they were much more critical.

“Too often, people describe how, cumulatively, over time, with project after project, the way aid is provided fuels dependency. In a collaborative aid system, people say that they would be seen as colleagues and drivers of their own development, they wouldn’t just be seen as recipients and beneficiaries.”

Aid programmes typically identify needs and then deliver goods or services to fill the gaps, rather than looking for and supporting existing strengths, the report says. The researchers also found that beneficiaries were usually pragmatic, accepting what was offered even if it was not something they would have chosen as a priority.

“The donor agency never asked us what we actually needed or wanted”

A young man in Kosovo told the team, “The donor agency never asked us what we actually needed or wanted, and the community didn’t want to refuse a generous offer even if we could not use it now. We hoped that one day there would be a doctor and then the new health centre could open.”

The general message was that if beneficiaries had been included in discussions, they could have helped make the aid much better - better targeted, less wasteful and more transparently delivered. If aid agencies and NGOs were more open about their budgets, recipients would be less suspicious that funds were being misappropriated. And if they knew when a project was likely to end, they could plan for the future and not feel abandoned.

Brown and her colleagues found few people demanded more aid, and many asked for less. Recipients also wanted aid staff to return to see the longer-term effects of their work, both good and bad. Too often, projects are seen as finished once the last of the money is spent, and they are considered a success if they are completed on time and on budget, regardless of whether they lead to genuine development. The report dryly notes, “Just because something is measurable doesn’t mean that it is what should be assessed.”

Need for flexibility

Donors can exert a strong influence on the focuses and processes of aid agencies. Projects with government donors, for example, often place great importance on the need to be accountable and produce value-for-money, Brown said. Such aid work may be constrained by funding rounds, disbursement tranches, and the constant demand for project proposals and regular reports.

Brown told IRIN that she had seen major differences within the same organization, depending on whether it was spending government money. She said such organizations could take more time and be more flexible when spending money they had raised themselves.

Sean Lowrie, who leads the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies, argues that aid workers’ own mindsets are also to blame.

“There’s a mental model for emergency response. We feel that we must be rushing around to save lives, and it’s quite convenient because it gives us permission to operate without getting into the messiness and inconvenience of beneficiary opinion,” he said.

“Also, donors have bought into this myth that they need to be focused to be effective, and this translates into conditionalities and earmarking, and these cascade from donor to UN to NGO to local NGO, and by the time the money gets to the front line, it’s very difficult to respond to local priorities,” Lowrie continued.

He said his own organization had worked to persuade donors to provide non-earmarked funding. “By having this pot of money,” he said, “we were able to save more lives.”

Wendy Fenton, coordinator of the Humanitarian Policy Network, who has spent 25 years working in international humanitarian and development aid, says the ideas in ‘Time to Listen’ are important and timely. “I think we should take it seriously,” she told IRIN.

“It comes from the same group, led by Mary Anderson, which originated the ‘Do No Harm’ concept in international assistance, and that is still there and it did have impact. I am optimistic that this will have that same kind of impact, because the problems of not listening have been talked about a lot in over the last five years or so. ‘Time to Listen’ will resonate with people because these issues are already being widely discussed in the humanitarian community.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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