It excites me when I first read titles such as, “The True ‘Beneficiary’ Is The Organization That Listens” by Denise Raquel Dunning on the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network blog earlier this year. I click enthusiastically because I see listening, and perhaps more importantly, responding, as a fundamental aspect of do-gooder work. It’s a key, yet under-valued, determinant of any initiative’s success.

But how we advocate for this is also important.


In this particular article, I would certainly agree with Dunning, in her role at the Adolescent Girls’ Advocacy and Leadership Initiative, that grassroots leaders are powerful actors that are reaching marginalized girls and unlocking their potential. We certainly both think that that the time to place local expertise at the center of international assistance has come.

However, we need to be careful to not characterize people as merely data providers.Dunning writes, “These community leaders are the best data source we have as we develop, implement, and evaluate programs in the social sector…All too often, we miss the most crucial data points, the ones that are directly in front of our faces – the knowledge, expertise, ideas, and experience of community-based leaders.”

By making the argument that local leaders have something we (organizations) need from them (information), we don’t yet overcome the centrality and the hierarchy with which aid organizations portray themselves in the global development equation. It’s something I’ve inadvertently and unconsciously done at times, and have subsequently and rightly been called out on.

Not only is it time to get beyond aid-driven development, those of working to make aid more locally responsive and empowering have to be very thoughtful about the Gates-led “more measurement” bandwagon. There’s much value in big data, and it may be tempting to position local leaders’ expertise within this paradigm. However, our sector needs to be more cognizant that international organizations’ obsession with results is a product of a Western, male, educated, elite tradition, which if unchecked, can become dangerously derivative.

There’s a big, big world out there, full of people that relate to “data” very differently than us do-gooders, and probably much less desperately.

As holders of fundamental human rights, equal in dignity and rights, we are all free to receive and impart information and ideas, and to drive our own futures. There is tremendous value in organizations doing more listening and it will lead to better outcomes.

Not because it yields more data, but because it is the right thing to do.

This article was also published on the Local First blog. Local First is an approach to international development that prioritises the views and leadership of people and organisations in the countries affected, over those of outsiders from the international community.