Five kinds of Listening for the global development community

11 November 2014

I just came across Josh Stearn’s post, Five Kinds of Listening for Newsrooms and Communities. As I read, it struck me that a lot of what is in there could apply almost directly to the global development community, but with some little language changes. So, following Josh’s method of forking other people’s posts, here are five kinds of listening, for global development.

(Forked with permission — words in bold are my additions)

Below I’ve tried to map out five models for listening at the intersection of global development programming, and communities.

  • Listening to the communities we’re trying to work with: One of the most fundamental parts of global development is listening to the people who are affected by our projects. Too often, however, we turn to the same voices; the areas that are easiest to get to, the local NGOs we have already worked with, the most vocal voices in a community. Part of listening better will be listening to find marginalised voices and looking for new perspectives.

  • Listening for project ideas: Development practitioners should listen to the communities they are working in to discover what their needs are. [name a development org that does this — any suggestions, readers?] takes this idea further by not just listening for project ideas but also listening to community priorities. Rather than a project manager deciding which project gets funded, the community gets to decide.

  • Listening for feedback: Listening shouldn’t stop once a project is funded. Development organisations should actively invite community feedback on projects and programmes. This goes beyond having a single feedback session, to actually creating venues for stakeholders to respond to the programming in a sustained way.

  • Listening for understanding and context: Sometimes in development organisations we describe these kinds of interviews as “research” or “monitoring and evaluation” but my notion of this idea goes beyond that. Most development organisations could do much more listening to the concerns, passions, challenges and hopes of local communities. Understanding the lived experiences of people in different parts of our community will help us rethink the role of our organisation, meet new needs in our projects, and challenge our assumptions. This kind of listening, and an awareness to these contexts, will make other forms of listening — specifically those in points one and two above — easier and more impactful.

  • Listening for relationships: We often talk about community engagement, but to what end? Engagement is a means to building more meaningful relationships with our communities, relationships rooted in trust, empathy, transparency and accountability. This effort to build relationships around the news is at the heart of international development organisations push into new participatory models. It is about doing better development work and hopefully making those projects more sustainable. But, sometimes in a relationship we just need to listen because someone else needs to be heard. Listening for the sake of listening, for the sake of showing up and being present for others, is critical to building trusting relationships. Local NGOs — supported by donors, perhaps — should be places people can come together and have their voices recognized and heard.

Adding a Listening Layer to Global Development Programming

Too often global development organisations approach listening as a transaction – you give me info, I’ll give you a development project. We need to move beyond transactional listening to something more transformational that helps reshape our programming, communities and the ties that bind us. To do that, we have to make listening a part of the entire global development process. It can’t just be a tactic used during planning or implementing — it is fundamental to both.

And we should create better infrastructure to capture what we hear, synthesize it and measure it. But listening is a form of engagement that can’t be easily captured in analytics dashboards, so we need new ways to recognize the role listening plays across online and offline interactions with the beneficiaries of our projects. Done right, our listening gives us new material to build stronger projects and stronger relationships.

We can’t strengthen the practice of listening if we can’t see it. We should recover listening from its largely invisible place in international development and place it at the core of what we do.


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