Monday, November 15, 2010

Good aid projects come from good conversations

If we could directly observe the results of aid projects, we could avoid a lot of the heavy bureaucratic processes and reporting that makes life miserable for so many aid workers and that often impedes and obscures quality work.  Like Owen Barder, I believe the time is coming when new approaches and technologies will help us clear away a lot of this bureaucratic brush so we can focus on results.

In the meantime, a blogger called Tales from the Hood has a nice post on practices considered correlated with "good aid" - i.e., aid that has the desired impact.  I particularly like his/her first point:
1) Starts and ends with the needs of those affected by poverty, disaster, and conflict (a.k.a. “the poor”, “aid recipients”, “program participants”, “beneficiaries”…).  ...[I]f we’re to do it right, if we’re to plan and implement good aid, our starting point needs to be those whom we seek to serve. If that starting point is anything else (for example, the needs of a particular donor, surplus of something…) then a recipe for bad aid has already been started.
This requires listening to what communities themselves want. And then listening to how they feel that projects are being implemented.  And then listening afterwards to what they learned.

Listening is not easy. Communities are full of diverse interests and unequal distributions of political power and voice, and it is usually tough to sort out these various influences.  Many aid workers and organizations still lack the capacity to listen systematically in such contexts. But dealing with ambiguity and conflict by not listening is usually a poor strategy.

And listening should not be one way. The best aid projects I have seen have been born from a conversation between community members and aid workers. All involved in the conversation bring unique information, perspectives, and desires. A constructive outcome - leading to a good aid aid project - requires give and take on both sides. I love this piece by David Gaus where he describes how he learned to listen - and be heard - while working on health care in Ecuador.