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January 29, 2013
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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.


  1. Absolutely fascinating + valuable. Made me reflect that on the one hand the “old” and “new” models do reflect political realities – the old was the 70’s and 80s (solidarity), the new the 90s and 00s (neoliberalism, donor driven “value for money”); on the other hand there’s a spectrum and it’s not as though the “new” agenda is all unnecessary or bad. There’ll always be tensions between the 2 approaches and a thoughtful agency takes care to balance both. But if the study convinces donors that the balance has swung too far in the new direction, it will be very useful.

  2. Great to see you profiling this book, Duncan. It really is a terrific addition to our understanding of how aid works – and how we can make it work better.

    I also had the feeling: haven’t we heard this before? We know the best NGO interventions take time to listen and respond to local people, treating them with real respect. So the book left me with two questions:

    (1) What factors push managers in the field away from this kind of good practice? I think we probably have a pretty good idea of some of the big ones, like too strong a commitment to initial plans, the difficulties of managing multiple relationships, rigid logframes etc etc.

    (2) What systems should NGOs use to manage work in line with this ‘new paradigm’? The authors call for a ‘new paradigm’ – we need systems to put it into practice. There don’t seem to be many serious contenders on offer. I’m a fan of Outcome Mapping and excited by the prospect of feedback systems. But surely, as a sector, we urgently need to come up with better ways of defining and assessing performance, that create the right accountabilities for everyone involved.

  3. RE So what do aid’s recipients want its providers do instead? Their most consistent desire was for aid workers to be ‘present’ in communities. 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).

    I would argue when it work wells this is areal strength of the International volunteering approach used by CUSO and VSO where skilled professionals live side by side counterparts in local communities.

  4. Thank you Duncan for highlighting this report. I’ve started to read it and see it as instructive for the development of our wind powered aircraft in Africa.

    From your comments, I think we have one thing right and that is our desire to develop these aircraft in Africa with the people who will use them instead of us bringing a new design from the States only to have missed out on local knowledge.

  5. To provide some clarification: We listened to a broad range of people in aid recipient countries: mostly people who have been or who are supposed to be the “beneficiaries” [a term we do not like] of aid efforts, largely at the community level in many communities in each country; people who have been involved in the provision/delivery of aid such as local leaders, government officials, local NGOs and activits, business owners, etc; and other obsevers of aid efforts such as religious leaders, randomly selected community members, academics. We avoided “dog and pony shows” and many of the usual suspects and “experts” to hear from people who are rarely asked their opinions about the effectiveness of aid efforts. There is a whole chapter (2) on the methodology and the challenges of listening with aid providers, mostly staff of international and national/local NGOs (including Oxfam in several countries). (We also listened to the reactions and ideas of “aid providers” including official and private donors, aid agencies, academics and others in 16 feedback workshops around the world).

    What was striking was that there often was not a big difference between humanitarian and development programming—in fact most people do not make the distinctions that aid agencies do. And in many cases, INGOs are seen as donors and influenced heavily by the policies, priorities, and practices of their donors. Again, there is a whole chapter on this called “Donor Policies, Donor Agendas.” We did not hear as much about government support however we did hear a lot about working with and through governments (chapter 7).

    The evidence behind the book–20 case studies/listening exercise reports–are all on our website and we welcome people to read those too.

    Thanks for the reviews and good questions. We want to hear what you think needs to be done to really address the critiques, many of which are not that new, and how we will finally make more progress toward working ourselves out of jobs!

  6. Thanks Dayna for that information. The book is on my to-read list, but the reason I asked that specific question was because I think, in a way, the best thing would be for people in communities not to know or have to worry about whether it was aid, or local philanthropy, or strong community action, or government funding (maybe or maybe not aid-subsidised!) that sorted out the water problem or the school or whatever. People who work in NGOs or ministries may have of necessity a direct interface with aid donors, but for the people further down the chain it would be great to move to a situation where the fact that there was aid is the least relevant thing about their lives.
    Looking forward to reading!

  7. Hello Matt,

    You raise a great point about how much people in recipient communities know about the sources (and reasons!) behind some of the “projects” that have materialized in their communities, villages, towns and countries over the years.

    Certainly, in all twenty listening exercises we were struck by how savvy many recipients and observers of aid were about the motivations behind donor actions, explicit and implict agendas, and the evolution of aid approaches that they have seen overtime. Of course, we also spoke to a number of people in recipient communities that did not know any details about the “who, why, how much and how” invested in various aid efforts (but many did want to know more about all this). Nevertheless, they still were able to speak from their direct, personal experience about the effects of these efforts on their families, communities and society. They reflected on how aid efforts (even those poorly understood) add up and complement (or not!) with others that came before or after.

    In Cambodia, during a listening visit to Mondulkiri province in the East, I heard a number of local people describe in detail how their lives have been affected by new roads and other infrastructure projects which most of them described as “our government built for us” …with Cambodian People’s Party signs displayed along each road and school (along with a few “donor brands” in few places). The Cambodian and expat aid workers who joined me on that listening visit knew that the roads/schools/clinics were funded by multi-lateral and bilateral donors. To us, what mattered in those particular conversations, was NOT if people could name the donor, but what they thought made a difference and how, in that case in particular – how the roads helped other aid projects become more impactful (clinics, livelihoods projects connecting to markets, etc).

    And, among the many intangible impacts of aid that the Listening Project heard about, the listening team there clearly heard about enhanced legitimacy of Cambodian government in the eyes of local citizens who saw these aid projects to be national government investments. Needless to say — this led to many interesting discussions and reflections during listening team debriefs each evening!

    Isabella / Listening Project

  8. Thanks for this Duncan. Again it would be great if Oxfam Education were interested in sharing the complexities described with UK schools and the Global Learning community. At the moment UK schools and teachers are instructed by Oxfam to teach that all aid is good and all recipeints are smiling faces (often disembodied in more ways than one) who express no emotion other than gratitude.

    Please pass on your review to Oxfam Education and plead with them to trust schools that they can comprehend this level of complexity and that both Oxfam and the UK teachers and students will benefit from it!

  9. Thank you for this review. The report has been sitting on my ‘to read’ pile but I haven’t managed to actually start reading.
    When reading through your review and especially when looking at the table you provided, it is astonishing how strongly this corresponds with our findings from a series of discussions bringing together market development practitioners and experts from the fields of complexity sciences (e.g. Dave Snowden and Shamim Bodhanya) and systems thinking (e.g. Richard Hummelbrunner and Elizabeth Dunn). We will present a synthesis report soon, it will be published by the SEEP Network.
    One thing that does not get enough prominence in our report, though, is the strong need for contextual adaptation, although this is also something that complexity thinking is very clear about: complex systems (like communities) are strongly embedded in their history and context. Thanks for reminding us about that!

  10. Aloha from Maui

    I look forward to reading this book.
    Ernest Sirolli gave a presentation about development at TEDxEQChCh
    “Truly Sustainable Economic Development”. His message was the same, “listen” rather than going into poor countries with pre conceived ideas of what will work.
    His talk can be seen on Youtube.

  11. CDA’s excellent work is powerful because it is global. There are many national reports drawing similar conclusions. For example, Dalia Association in Palestine did a 3-min film with aid recipients’ airing their grievances that is on the home page at http://www.dalia.ps, and their advocacy work includes a report of grassroots civil society’s complaints and recommendations for improving the aid system so that it respects Palestinians’ rights.

  12. “Sorry, aid slammers,” recipients have positive feelings about aid. Until they start thinking about its longer-term and society-wide impacts, at which point they become negative.

    Sounds like quite a comfortable finding for the aid slammers, sadly.

  13. Great post! Congrats to Anderson, Brown and Jean for listening and sharing the results. It’s definitely timely and pertinent to move forward on a real aid effectiveness agenda.

  14. Sounds like Robert Chambers c. 1983! But I look forward to reading the book and using it in my university-level teaching in development geography.

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