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Role of Foreign Aid Workers: Listen to the Local People - they know the problems and the solutions

Posted by Gretchen Winston 
Yeah Samake who is executive director of Mali Rising Foundation and just elected Mayor of Ouelessebougou, Mali confirmed to himself recently that it is the villagers who know best what they need and have the good ideas on the solutions. Over the years Yeah has had three different roles during which he had in depth conversations with the villagers. First as a translator for a non profit that operated in Ouelessebougou. A university was doing a film on the role of women in Mali and the effect of the NGO's projects. As the translator he got to hear their responses to the questions. But even more telling, after the formal interviews where over, he could understand what the villagers were saying in their native tounge. They knew how they needed to answer the questions to continue to get the help that the NGO offered. But the answers were not necesarrily accurate. As executive director of Mali Rising Foundation, when he went to a village that was in the process of applying to have a school built in their village, he had yet another type of conversation. MRF set up a cooperative relationship with the village - the village provide the land, 20% of the construction cost, and approval from Dept of Education to provide teachers. In exchange MRF found a donner to provide the rest of the cost and MRF hired villagers to work doing the construction and used local material to made adobe bricks in the village. The care that has been taken of these school building, especailly compared building just given by other NGOs, is amazing. Unlike so much in Mali that looks old after only a few years, these buildings are in perfect condition. Then as a canidate for Mayor, Yeah had yet a different experience. As he talked to the people, he saw that they knew what their problems were, and they had good ideas on solutions. Yeah's challenge in getting elected was to buck the typical promise from candidates to "give " the villagers what they needed. He said I will "work with you" to help you to figure out how to get what you need. He was elected overwhelmingly. To me the only way aid will be sucessful is to let the local people identify the problems, come up with the soultions, and then outside help can come in as "consultants" or "teachers" , add their knowledge to the wisdom and knowledge of the locals and let the locals be the experts.
I am amazed about how similar Yeah and Gretchen's story is to our own evaluation philosophy at globalgiving. We like to say "local people are the experts on what they need" and we ask them to tell us who best serves them. We should probably also ask "how can we work with you to provide for yourselves," but is my impression that rarely do local implementers achieve success without training and encouragement from leaders somewhere.

This philosophy should also directly influence an org's evaluation philosophy. Here is the letter we send projects when we want to evaluate them:

I am writing to introduce our local GlobalGiving evaluator, [____]. Leah would like to meet your organization’s staff and your beneficiaries to gain a better understanding of how you operate in the field. Our evaluation philosophy is that every project has its own goals. You have already articulated these goals as part of posting a project on GlobalGiving; now we just want to know how you know you are making progress towards your goals. Her visit should take less than one day. She will also be interviewing people in communities where you work to gauge their level of awareness about your activities.

We offer you this opportunity to learn from an outsider’s perspective. We will share her report with you as soon as it is available, and we add it to the public records about your organization on GlobalGiving. Most importantly, her visit is another opportunity for you to highlight the work you are doing in the field as donors will receive a “visitor postcard” from our auditor by email. GlobalGiving has paid outside experts in the past for this same kind of capacity-building consultation. This has enabled us to grow larger and more effective.

Too often words like “evaluation” and “audit” raise flags. But GlobalGiving’s model turns this evaluation into an opportunity, not a liability. In contrast to the closed system of foundation grants, third party feedback on your project adds visibility and credibility that is reflected in your search ranking on our site, as well as in the various donor-engagement tools we manage. You are much more likely to gain from evaluations in an open system. Current statistics estimate that a quarter of ENGAGED DONORS still don’t trust the organizations they give to. An even larger fraction of the general public does not give because they don’t trust. Open feedback and social media are the antidotes to the trust problem.

If you have questions, do not hesitate to call, email, text, skype, or tweet me.
"Listening to People on the Receiving End of Aid"

An important series on the work and findings of the Listening Project began today at the Harvard Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations’ Humanitarian & Development NGOs Domain blog.

Thought your followers might be interested in this cross-posting of the Listening Project's initial findings on my blog. I urge everyone involved in international assistance to stay tuned as they continue to be shared. Barefoot Economics’ recent post also demonstrates a wonderful example of what we can learn when aid recipients can provide their genuine feedback.

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Background on the Listening Project

The Listening Project is a comprehensive and systematic exploration of the ideas and insights of people who live in societies that have been on the recipient end of international assistance efforts (humanitarian assistance, development cooperation, peace-building activities, human rights work, environmental conservation, etc.).

The Listening Project has organized over 20 Listening Exercises in various contexts and geographical regions since late 2005, including Aceh (Indonesia), Afghanistan, Angola, Bolivia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, East Timor, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Kenya, Kosovo, Lebanon, Mali, Mindanao, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Thai-Burma border area, US Gulf Coast, and Zimbabwe. More than 130 international and local organizations have participated and contributed more than 400 staff members to the Listening Teams that held conversations with nearly 6,000 people.

These teams listened to the experiences and reflections of a wide range of local people in recipient societies (community members and leaders, government officials, civil society and religious leaders, teachers, health workers, business people, academics, NGO and CBO staff, women, youth, etc.) to gather their perceptions of international aid efforts. Each Listening Exercise produced a report (available on the CDA website) that captures what people have said as they shared their experiences and thoughts on the cumulative effects of international assistance on their lives and their societies.
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