For someone embedded in the development sector and familiar with its mechanics, the most incomprehensible part of the Listening Program was that it started with no pre-determined agenda.
It wasn’t for a specific project or program.
It wasn’t a specific evaluation of organizational performance.
It wasn’t even an advocacy initiative for a particular community, focusing on a particular issue.
Instead, it was designed with the beautiful idea of listening to authentic, unheard voices from the receiving end of international aid all over the world. Free of judgment or bias, the Listening Program was established to gather and communicate feedback to the aid community as a whole.
Some key elements of the conversations led by the Listening Teams were that they were unscripted, open-ended, and the facilitators were not looking to find consensus. Instead, diverse ideas and perceptions were collected and then clustered together in order to trace trends, and to examine the reasons for differences in opinions and feedback. By ensuring representation of a broad range of stakeholders, the Listening Program aimed to correct for one-off biases that were created in particular situations.
Once “Time to Listen” was published, the logical next step was to ensure that the voices reached the right places – that donors and aid agencies came to know what people were thinking, how disconnected they felt from the processes shaping their lives, and how, in sensitive settings, insensitive programming could do more harm than good.
However, there has also been an additional follow up question – given the overwhelming response to the LP teams and the clear need for including more local voices in development, could there be ways of institutionalizing “listening”?
If so, what would “listening” look like for the traditional development organization, working on the ground? And, importantly, how would these organizations with limited budgets and personnel justify “listening” to their donors?
While going over a copy of the manual for the Listening Teams, I was struck by how different the instructions were from traditional monitoring and evaluation processes.
“We do not want to take pictures of any projects. While we do not want the teams to spend too much time in the car, we also do not want to just reach the most accessible or the people who are often visited on project or donor visits.”
For me, the answers lie in these simple instructions. Listening is not about self-promotion, or superficial skimming of opinions to check boxes. Before a project is designed, it makes sense to have a panoramic picture of what is happening in a certain place – to know the dynamics between different parts of the community, to know strengths and weaknesses and be able to identify opportunities for entry. A listening exercise can be called by many names – an “inception mission”, a “needs assessment”, a “conversation”. What is most important is the way it is conducted – sans judgment, sans bias, and with respect for the voices being heard.
By Guest Blogger Madeeha Ansari, Student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Madeeha Ansari is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, working with CDA’s Listening Program over the summer. Prior to this, she has worked on capacity building and community-based education initiatives in Pakistan.