Listening project: Field visit report - Zimbabwe


Background on the Listening Project

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 reflections 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, environmental conservation, human rights and/or peace-building efforts 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 international 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.

Many conversations were held with one or two individuals, but in other cases, larger groups formed and what began as small-group dialogues became, in effect, free-flowing group discussions. In many cases,  conversations were not pre-arranged, and a Listening Team would travel to a community and strike up a conversation with whomever was available and willing to talk, including those who had and had not received international assistance. Appointments were also made with government officials and other local leaders.

Over a period of two years, the Listening Project will visit up to twenty countries, with Zimbabwe being the sixth. 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 Zimbabwe deserve great appreciation for their generous logistical support and the insights and dedication of all the staff that participated in and supported the effort.


1.1 The Listening Project in Zimbabwe

The Listening Project (LP) organized a two-week field effort in Zimbabwe in December 2006. Four major international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and one local NGO collaborated with CDA in arranging for and carrying out the field visit of the Listening Project in Zimbabwe. One of the INGOs served as the main hosting agency and each of these agencies generously provided funds, staff and other in-kind support (hospitality,  transport, etc.) to the effort. CDA sent three people, including one from a participating agency, to facilitate this listening exercise.

Three groups of 'listeners,' each composed of two or three Zimbabwean staff from the participating agencies and one or two international staff (from CDA and participating agencies), visited three provinces of Zimbabwe - Masvingo, Manicaland and North and South Matabeleland. Some conversations involved one or two individuals; most were with groups of three to six, with a few including as many as 10-25 people who gathered around to talk as our conversations proceeded.

The Listening Teams often began with a visit to the head of the local district administration and/or the ward councilor, both to engage them in conversation about international assistance and to ask for permission to have conversations with people in their regions. In each village, we contacted the village headman to get his support and engage him in a conversation. Several teams also spoke to agricultural development officers, business people, health workers, school principals, teachers and students. In each location, teams talked to a range of people, most of whom had been direct recipients of international aid but some of whom had not. The teams took whatever oppor tunities presented themselves and appreciated the willingness and openness of many people to sit and reflect with us on their observations.

In the three regions and over the course of five days, the Listening Teams held around 62 conversations with a total of about 317 people. All but a handful of the conversations occurred in rural communities that had received aid in the past or were currently receiving assistance. Listening Teams spoke with adult men and women, elderly, youth and children, some who held leadership positions, and others who were marginalized. Many conversations were held with women and men separately, or sometimes with youth apart from adults. In one province, the Listening Teams had conversations with several peri-urban and urban groups. In Matabeleland, most conversations took place with representatives of the Ndebele minority. All conversations were conducted in the local language (Shona or Ndebele) with translation provided for the expatriates by the Zimbabweans, but some people involved in our conversations in all three areas understood and spoke English.

Inevitably, what we heard represents only a small fraction of the opinions and judgments of Zimbabwean people. We therefore do not draw broad conclusions from this visit. At the end of each section below, the Listening Team reflects on some of the questions that are raised by what we heard that seem to deserve more listening and analysis.