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Listening is key to effective aid and development

Humanitarian leaders and their organizations talk a lot about listening to what citizens in developing countries want. The UN is taking it so seriously that it launched a survey as a part of its effort to determine what will replace the Millennium Development Goals.

“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,” said one worker in Lebanon to researchers with the US-based CDA Collaborative.

That anecdote is just one of many that are used to highlight the importance of listening, and other aid buzzwords like ‘inclusive’, ‘participatory’, and more.

Problem is that all the talk does not necessarily add up to action. Jeffrey Hammer recently recounted a story for the World Bank Blog about the Chief Minister of the province of Punjab, Pakistan. Minister Shahbaz Sharif called out development professionals for not answering the questions he needs to learn from.

“Should I put more money into transport? Infrastructure (power, roads, water)? Law and order? Social services? Or what? And where am I going to get the money?” asked Sharif at the event.

These are the kinds of questions that economists can answer, says Hammer, but were not being discussed at the event. He challenged his fellow economists to consider their research and policy prescriptions in a more political manner, one that understands that trade-offs have to be made.

“When someone says “we should have more “X” because we have evidence that it works”, the response should be “compared to what?” What should we cut in order to promote your particular interest?” challenges Hammer.

All political considerations are not created equal. As Ben Leo of the Center for Global Development found, donors who think mainly about their own needs and preferences risk ignoring the people they intend to impact.

His conclusions were based on a survey conducted by Afrobarometer that measures what people in Africa think are the most important issues in their lives. It comes at little surprise that the things people say matter most do not necessarily align with aid and development programs.

“There are some major African and Latin American countries where very little of US assistance focuses on what people care most about,” said Leo, in the CGD podcast.

When surveyed, Africans say they are concerned with jobs, infrastructure, financial enabling policies and inequality. The often funded areas of health, education, and insecurity only appear on roughly 15% of survey responses.

“What these surveys are likely telling us is that the common caricatures about what Africans want the most (or need the most) does not necessarily fit with what ordinary Africans actually say when given the chance,” blogs Leo.

Much like Hammer, Leo says that there is a need to consider different policy questions when it comes to US foreign aid policy. Among the many changes recommended, the most basic comes down to continuing to simply ask people what they want and what matters most in their lives.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]