Listening project: Field visit report - Bolivia
CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, with a number of colleagues in international NGOs, donors and other humanitarian and development agencies, has started the Listening Project to undertake a comprehensive and systematic exploration of the ideas and insights of people who live in societies that have been on the recipient side of international assistance. The Listening Project seeks the insights of experienced and thoughtful people who occupy a range of positions within recipient societies to assess the impact of aid efforts by international actors. Those of us who work across borders in humanitarian aid, development assistance, peace-building efforts, environmental conservation, and human rights work can learn a great deal by listening to the analyses and judgments of local people as they reflect on the immediate effects and long-term impacts of such efforts.
The Listening Teams did not work from pre-established questionnaires or a rigid interview protocol. Rather, we told people that, as individuals engaged in international assistance work, we were interested to hear from them how they perceived these efforts. We asked if they would be willing to spend some time with us, telling us their opinions and ideas. In this way, we conversed about their issues of concern, without pre-determining specific topics. We wanted the people with whom we spoke to take the lead in raising the issues that most concern them.
Many conversations were held with one or two individuals, but in many other cases, larger groups formed and what began as small-group dialogues became, in effect, free-flowing group discussions. In most cases, conversations were not pre-arranged (except for appointments with government officials and other key stakeholders). A listening team would travel to a community and strike up a conversation with whomever was available and willing to talk, speaking both to people who had and had not received international assistance.
Over a period of two years, the Listening Project will visit up to twenty countries, with Bolivia being the fifth so far. The project will gather what we hear from people in all of these locations in order to integrate these insights into future aid work and, thereby, to improve its effectiveness.
A collaborative learning process such as the Listening Project depends entirely on the involvement and significant contributions of all the participating agencies. Those who were involved in Bolivia deserve great appreciation for their generous logistical support and the insights and dedication of all the staff members who participated in and supported the effort.
The Listening Project in Bolivia
The Listening Project organized a 10-day field effort in Bolivia in November of 2006 - including one day of orientation and two of intensive analysis - with the help of CARE International, Catholic Relief Services, Centro de Multiservicios Educativos (CEMSE), Programa de Coordinación en Salud Integral (PROCOSI), Save the Children, SEX-SALUD, and World Vision. These organizations provided part of the funds, staff, and other in-kind support (hospitality, transportation, etc.) to the effort, and CDA sent one staff person and two outside consultants to facilitate this listening exercise.
Three groups of 'listeners,' each composed of an international consultant and personnel from Bolivian assistance agencies, visited one of three chosen areas of Bolivia: Cochabamba (urban and rural areas); San Julian (Department of Santa Cruz); and El Alto and Calamarca above La Paz. We chose these three regions of the country so as to ensure a variety of contacts with persons from different geographical regions and different cultural and class characteristics, as well as a range of residential situations - rural, semi-urban, and urban. The Bolivians, 13 in all, were primarily frontline professionals in their agencies, and to avoid bias most were sent to a region of the country where they were not currently working as part of their jobs. At each site there was at least one team member from that place, to help anchor and support the team logistically.
It needs to be said here that the Bolivian team was an extraordinary group of bright, dedicated professionals, who worked long hours without complaint and showed great enthusiasm for the project. The agency managers who selected them did an excellent job of doing so, and the individuals themselves performed at the highest level of competence and commitment, enhancing the project and this report.
In several places, the Listening teams began with a visit to municipal government officials, so as to engage them in conversation about their involvement in, impacts from, opinions of, and suggestions for improving external assistance. By design, conversations included a variety of people, some of whom had been direct recipients of external aid and some of whom had not. Often, teams would visit people in their homes, offices, or fields. Other times they arranged to visit local non-profits or base groups at their place of operation. Sometimes teams would stop in a café or other public place and talk with people there. The teams took whatever opportunities presented themselves, and we were rewarded by a notable willingness and openness on the part of many people, to sit and reflect with us on their own experiences and observations.
In the three sites over the six days, the listening teams held 82 conversations of varying length and depth with 148 people. The conversations included: women and men; people from all ethnic groups; older people, middle-aged, and youth; officials and common citizens; people in urban and rural areas; people who had been born where we were interviewing them and people who were rural-to-urban migrants; those who had received a great deal of assistance and those who had not; those who held leadership positions and those who felt disaffected or marginalized.
Despite our efforts to reach a broad range of individuals, we are aware that what we heard represents only a small fraction of the opinions and judgments of Bolivians. We are also very aware that our sample was neither large nor random, but was consciously targeted at a diverse, if limited, cross-section of the Bolivian populace. We therefore do not draw broad conclusions from this effort, but hope that we have captured the pulse of a range of Bolivians at this time.
On the final day of the exercise, we presented our preliminary results to approximately 25 managers and mid-level employees of international and Bolivian assistance agencies, and we listened to their feedback and questions. What we heard was incorporated into this document, which was then sent out to each of them who requested it, for more comments and critiques, which have also been taken into account.
Hence, this has been a truly collective analysis, entailing nearly 100 person-days of listening data, and this document has been designed to provoke discussion, debate, reflection, reconsideration, and perhaps reforms in how external assistance is designed, delivered, and assessed.
Over the coming months, as we listen in many more locations throughout the world, we will look for common themes, attitudes, conclusions, recommendations, and judgments that may be helpful to improve the impact of future external assistance work. At the end of each section below, we reflect on the major issues that were raised by what we heard, some of which deserve more listening and analysis. At the end of the document, we list a number of suggestions