The transformative potential of listening


Alex Ross


Listening and responding to people’s views and voices and centring them in decision making are key ingredients for shifting power. Yet for millions of people who rely on humanitarian support and millions more whose communities are being ‘developed’, giving feedback is highly controlled and difficult to do.

To ensure effectiveness, accountability and critically, to facilitate opportunities for people to speak truth to power, the international development sector needs to get better at receiving and responding to real time feedback. Without this, any efforts to shift power in the system will be undermined, as accountability to donors will continue to dominate over accountability to communities.

At Loop, we’ve been working with civil society organisations and technologists to codesign a tool to help democratise feedback and deliver accountability, where it matters, to the people.  Over the last few years of testing, trialling, and tweaking or more succinctly – listening, listening and listening, we’ve heard and learnt a lot.

To help agencies and funders actively seeking to amplify community voices, shift power and increase accountability to the people their funding serves and supports, here are a few reflections.

Community is a cacophony of voices and views

It may sound an obvious point to make but the ‘sector’ gets so absorbed with talking ‘community’ that it forgets that this is not a homogenous group or neatly segmented target populations speaking with one voice. To ensure agencies hear all community needs, including those often sidelined and silenced, we need to ensure there are practical, accessible and safe options for all people to feedback, regardless of the language they speak, their literacy levels or their proximity to power.

Loop offers 6 feedback channels which people can choose from based on what they can access and feel comfortable with: Voice, SMS, WhatsApp, Messenger, Telegram and Web, in 17 languages, with the capacity to onboard additional indigenous and local languages in every script. This allows for a multitude of needs, perspectives and opinions to flow – loudly demonstrating that community speaks with diverse voices and views.

Trust is complex and enhanced by choice

Trust is a significant issue when it comes to people sharing their experiences and needs. When asked, people always know what would help them, but often feel there isn’t a relevant and safe forum for them to share. This is where choice is critical, and we hear this across the board, particularly during a design phase with women in Somalia.

They told us it’s a life-or-death decision if they report abuse given the potential for retribution, such as removal from beneficiary lists or being kicked out of camps or ostracised from wider family groups etc. They acknowledged that there are well meaning people in organisations dedicated to helping them, but they must trust these individuals with their and their families lives. For many people, this is too big a leap of faith so if we’re to truly centre ‘safeguarding’ and ‘agency’, people must be given options on how and with whom to share their concerns.

The anonymity and independent nature of Loop seems to be giving women the confidence they need to report sexual and gender-based violence in the immediate hours following abuse but not enough for them to give us consent to share personally identifiable information with relevant agencies for accountability.

These are high risk decisions that people need to be in control of and we must recognise the importance of this. Furthermore, as a sector we must collectively move beyond the need for feedback to be authenticated as coming from ‘one of our beneficiaries’. This only enhances siloed ways of working, fuelling a sense of competition between agencies which reduces knowledge sharing and collaboration. Most importantly, it dehumanises and devalues people’s experiences and priorities.

Measure what matters in real life and real time

People’s needs change significantly over time, (ideally) moving from emergency and crisis situations to recovery and returning home, and then to longer term considerations such as elections, street lighting or feeding back on training they’ve received. Reflecting on this broad use teaches us that ad hoc monitoring, mid-term or end line reviews and third-party surveys, while gathering specific and useful data, can also skew and misrepresent many important elements of a person or communities’ experiences and needs.

Critically, it also disempowers people by reinforcing power dynamics and control, where those with power make the key decisions, for example: a consultation’s purpose; who is to be consulted; who is asking the questions; what language is used; who will see the resulting data and ‘learning’ etc. These critical design questions will directly impact the data and results. Regardless of an agency’s intention, responses are influenced by who (which logo) asks the question – and people in all situations often feel the need to tell people what they think they want to hear – and this is more pronounced where there are power dynamics and acute needs at play.

As we explore practical ways to shift the power in international development, we can tangle ourselves in complexity (and excuses) but perhaps a good place to start is by democratising feedback and prioritising listening. This will help ensure that accountability to people and communities takes precedence over controlled feedback – which at best only provides us with half the story. At worst, it’s purely performative, seeking to evidence value for money and accountability to funding flows, thus continuing to bypass accountability to affected people entirely.

Alex Ross, Loop Lead, has worked in international development for over 20 years, leaving her role as Director of Programmes and Partnerships at the British Red Cross to establish Loop.

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