The Listening Project began as an attempt to capture the side of international developmental aid that we don’t often get to hear. It’s conductors, Mary B. Anderson, Dayna Brown and Isabella Jean, wanted to collect the experiences of those who receive aid, so as to better outline their expectations and understand their realities.

The project’s main objective is to highlight the importance of critical feedback from those whose lives it affects most deeply. They discovered that there was an overwhelmingly popular opinion among the 6,000 people interviewed that the notion of aid is good, but its implementation is increasingly bad.

They found that those receiving international assistance generally held expectations that it would contribute not only to the economic betterment of their country but also to its increased political and social conditions. Ultimately, they hoped that the support they received would garner a relationship with the international community based on solidarity.

Almost every interview began along the lines of: “We very much appreciate the assistance… but…” The “but” was nearly always followed by a personal example of a negative externality produced by their country’s growing dependence on foreign aid. The interviewees agreed that their reality does not meet their expectations. While the stories concerning aid were all very cheerful in the short-term, they grew to be disheartening in the long-term.

The chief negative effect identified in the interviews typically involved an increase in the general sentiment of powerlessness and dependency. Those interviewed said that, at times, international actors bring projects that wind up perpetuating the need for more projects and more assistance. Additionally, the influx of public funds often leads actors within the country to create policies and projects that assume these funds will always be available. These practices establish an endless cycle of dependency.

Interviewees also noted how aid can increase tension between groups. Often this is brought on by a sense of relative deprivation caused by specific targeting of aid of one group and not of another. Because foreign agencies sometimes assign aid along ethnic or religious lines- divisions that may have caused violent conflict in the past- there runs a danger of reigniting long-standing prejudices.

Finally, interviewees say that the solidarity they hoped would come from aid has instead lead to a sense of mistrust toward aid agencies. The main suggestion of a great number of those interviewed was that there should be an increase in consultation. Aid agencies need to observe more closely the local social dynamics that play out in different cultural contexts before administering to the people.

On a more uplifting note, many observed an increasingly positive impact on the status of women. Many international programs focus on the improvement of the lives of women, and a great number have been successful at helping women become empowered. These programs often serve two purposes: to increase the capabilities of women and to force men to realize how this increase can contribute to the betterment of their community as a whole.

Before the project, the researchers wanted to emphasize that they in no way disagreed with the potential foreign assistance holds to bring positive impacts to the billions of people living in poverty worldwide. Their take on the issues of aid revolves around problems of implementation, not motivation.

They state in their book Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid that the main problems stem from the historical focus on disaster response instead of prevention. They suggest that a proactive approach to humanitarian issues is the most helpful in the long-term. They also cite certain aid agencies’ adoption of business principles and mechanisms as a prevalent issue. Aid agencies sometimes adhere too closely to the interests of their profit-seeking donors while failing to respond appropriately to the needs of aid recipients.

Additionally, when local partners are used as “middle men,” it creates a wider disconnect between donor and recipient. This can provide an opportunity for the diversion of funds and most certainly breeds “competition instead of collaboration.”

The Listening Project aims to bring these contradictions between expectations and realities to light. Since its beginnings in 2005, the project has influenced multiple aid agencies to adopt policies that can better address the issues raised by the aid recipients. As the voices of these people are heard, the awareness of the need for changes in the way foreign assistance is provided also increases.

– Kathryn Cassibry

Source: The Listening Project
Photo: Global Humanitarian Assistance