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Listening to local leaders: Just more data points?

I was excited to click on the article, “The True ‘Beneficiary’ Is The Organization That Listens” by Denise Raquel Dunning, yesterday on the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network blog. Folks well know by now that I see listening (and perhaps more importantly, responding) as a fundamental aspect of do-gooder work, and a key determinant of any initiative’s success. But how we advocate for this is important.

In her role at the Adolescent Girls’ Advocacy and Leadership Initiative, Dunning and I would certainly agree that grassroots leaders are powerful actors that are reaching marginalized girls and unlocking their potential. And we certainly both think that that the time to place local expertise at the center of international aid and philanthropy 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 subsequently and rightly have 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 our obsession with results is a product of a Western, male, educated tradition that can be 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.

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