What do 6,000 people on the receiving end of aid think of the system? Important new book

January 29, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Just finished Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid, by Mary B. Anderson, Dayna Brown and Isabellatime to listen cover Jean. It’s published by CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, a non-profit based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The book reminds me of the World Bank’s great Voices of the Poor study, only this time it’s ‘Voices of the aided’, a distillation of 6000 interviews carried out from 2005-9 with people who have received or been involved in aid – individuals, local NGOs, international NGOs, bilateral aid agencies etc.

And it’s an uncomfortable read: it had me squirming on multiple levels, because of its highly convincing criticisms of the aid business, the crassness of its generalizations, and its tendency to suggest what we already know to be true (and are trying to put into practice), not to mention wondering whether my negative reactions were just defensiveness. But the book’s origins – giving a voice to those on the receiving end of aid – means it is particularly worth reading, and some of it is unexpected and (I think) new.

So what does it say?

First, people are not anti-aid (sorry, aid slammers). ‘Universally, when asked to comment on their assessment of international assistance and its cumulative effects on their societies, people respond with, “International aid is a good thing, and we are grateful for it … but ….”’

But there is always a but, and these are remarkably consistent between countries.

‘The story is often cheerful in the short term, but…. as people analyze the longer term and society-wide effects of international assistance, the negative impacts seem to outweigh the positive ones.’

This focus on the cumulative impact of aid on poor people is really valuable, because it contrasts with most aid evaluations, which focus on individual projects or programmes.

‘When asked to step back from particulars and to comment on how aid efforts add up over time, the judgments change in two important ways. First, assessments go from mixed to primarily negative. Second, they go from specific and tangible to broad and intangible.’

drought aid recipientExamples of those ‘intangible’ negatives? People hate the sense of dependence, and feel it can undermine their own sense of agency and potential. Aid workers are always in a hurry, without the time to talk, listen or really understand the local context. There is often confusion and/or resentment that some groups (refugees, ethnic minorities) are targeted over others, building tensions between the aided and the unaided. As one villager in Cambodia told the researchers: ‘“I feel jealous. I don’t know why NGOs help [the refugee village] and not our village. The refugee village has electricity; the road is better there, and here it is muddy. It makes me feel they are better than us.”

Perhaps the most striking (and cheering) finding of the book is that gender-related aid is a massive exception:

‘People illustrate how international assistance can get it “right” by citing examples of processes and programming to improve the status of women. Women—and some men—told of experiences where an international program focusing on women led to economic benefits for both men and women. Some told how changed perceptions of women’s roles and capacities also changed broader attitudes and social interactions. Although some people felt that it is inappropriate for external actors to interfere with local male/female relations, it was interesting how many people described positive benefits from programming aimed at women. One possible interpretation of this appreciation is that in this area, international assistance agencies did recognize and focus on an existing, but internally undervalued, resource (women’s abilities).’

The authors put aid’s failings down to its ‘delivery system theory of change’ (this is where it starts to feel like a bit of a caricature). They argue this focuses on what is missing, not what resources and capacities local communities possess and can build on. That in turn leads to a supply-driven approach that squeezes out the views of the recipients, and a focus on spending – both volume and speed, which undermines aid’s ability to listen, learn and adapt to local contexts. Sound familiar? There are plenty of other old chestnuts – the constant and perplexing kaleidoscope of donor fads; a per diem culture creating ‘professional workshop goers’; the gulf between the rhetoric of partnership and participation and the reality of power imbalances between donor and recipient; the culture clash between discursive, oral traditions and donors’ insistence on endless reports, audits and paper trails.

So what do aid’s recipients want its providers do instead? Their most consistent desire was for aid workers to be ‘present’ in communities.aid satire 3 No, not yet more aid missions, but a more permanent rootedness in order to understand local realities. Stop writing project proposals and take the time to listen more (hence the book’s title).

Beyond that, the authors summarize the implications of their study by setting out a comparison between old and new aid systems (see table). In fairness, they acknowledge that much of their proposal is not new, but in their view, such approaches still represent the exception, not the rule.

2 aid paradigms

Final thoughts? The prose is admirably clear and jargon free, but a bit repetitive: a good editor could have cut the book’s 150 pages in half. I would have liked to see a lot more differentiation (in addition to the discussion on gender) – rather than just ‘aid’, did the interviews reveal differences between project aid and direct budget support to governments? Between humanitarian, long term development and advocacy? Between INGOs and official donors?

But perhaps the most disturbing point is that I cannot think of a previous exercise like this – recording the views of aid recipients on this scale. I really hope I’ve missed something (please send links). If you want a challenging, thoughtful, uncomfortable, bottom up (and free to download) critique of aid, ‘Time to Listen’ is the place to start.

January 29, 2013
Duncan Green