International aid’s minimal impact on the developing world has put the whole system into a bit of an existential crisis. As the developed world continues to struggle with economic recession, many have come to question the need to divest resources towards foreign countries when there is an abundance of problems to address at home. However, the real problem with aid is that very few people on the giving side actually know what happens with the aid and the impact it has on the ground.
CDA Collaborative Learning Projects (CDA), an American nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the effectiveness of international aid, conducted a four year investigation into the cumulative benefits of international assistance in 15 different countries – that is, the effect of all aid projects on a certain area, rather than a specific case.
Concerned with the lack of “listening” in the aid industry, their Listening Project sought to organize discussions between aid providers and aid recipients about the pros and cons of the current aid system. From 2005 to 2009, the Learning Project facilitated discussion between the two parties to assess the true value of international aid and determine possible reforms. To control the influence of biases, NGO workers were placed with colleagues from other NGOs and then taken to a site where no member of the group had experience. As results came through, the Listening Project thoroughly processed the information by collaborating with each other and with study participants in order to ensure the greatest accuracy from the investigations.
Their results have been described as no less than “shocking.”
The voices of nearly 6000 people across 20 countries have illustrated an aid system that is out of touch with reality, emphasizing how its lack of interaction with recipients has not only prevented progress but contributed to societal detriment. While aid does bring specific, short term gains, long term, cumulative aid has left recipients feeling dependent, powerless, and frustrated, not to mention exacerbated preexisting conflict and tensions within the area.
Essentially, the aid industry focuses too much on external factors and consequently misses opportunities to get feedback from their recipients. Current aid programs operate on the Delivery System Theory of Change, which states the following:
By efficiently providing tangible and intangible inputs, international actors can effectively cause, catalyze or support positive economic, social and political change in other countries.
While designed with good intentions, this theory, combined with the adoption of business principles in the aid industry, creates a situation where the “customer” is not the aid recipient but the donors and deadlines that aid organizations must respond to in order to survive. Aid groups focus on generating more money for their programs, starting more projects, and growing bigger rather than the impact that they have. Success is determined by the “efficiency” of the project, which does not always translate to “effectiveness,” especially when the efficiency is determined by a preset list of goals and objectives that diverts program attention from the actual needs of people. Furthermore, this external focus places donor policies at the forefront of aid – as aid programs go in and out of fashion and as government foreign policies change, recipients are subject to a series of disjointed and incoherent projects.
In fact, many also complain that aid programs send too much money too quickly. The extra inflow of cash without the necessary level of oversight and involvement from the aid workers become the source of corruption in many communities. Donations often do not address the immediate needs of the people but are accepted nonetheless because some aid is better no aid. A few respondents even mentioned the fear of disrespecting aid providers by complaining and therefore losing future donations. As can be seen, the current system encourages recipients to think about the best way to get more money rather than improving their surroundings.
Most importantly, responses indicated that aid efforts often underestimated the abilities of the people and communities that they helped. More often than not, aid workers would come in to see if the recipient wanted what the organization had to offer, rather than helping them build up preexisting capacities and institutions, however informal. Sometimes, organizations would try to bypass local authorities to provide aid, which many viewed to be disrespectful – or worse, organizations would solicit information from a body unrepresentative of the community as a whole. Clearly, a lack of meaningful communication has widened the divide between donors and recipients. If anything, recipients, regardless of background, want more involvement with the aid process. They want more information about the selection criteria of projects, their funding, their time frames, and their objectives, so that they as recipients can better prepare and plan their development . They want to become empowered to bring about change on their own, but they need outside help for support.
The authors of the study argue that changes in new aid programs have set the stage for a paradigm shift in the current international aid system. Taking into consideration the challenges highlighted by the investigation, they propose that the new paradigm would balance the aid efforts so that recipients would have more input in their own development. Since no universal solution exists for development, having local insight may better tailor programs to ensure greater, positive impact.
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
—Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
CDA Collaborative Learning Projects grew out of the Collaborative for Development Action, Inc., a small corporation that also worked to better the efficacy of international aid, in 2003. To read more about the Listening Project, read CDA’s recent book, titled Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid.