Last week I mentioned that NGOs should do lots of regular beneficiary testing (or user testing) when developing their projects, activities, products, interventions, etc.

© ISerg/iStock

© ISerg/iStock

I thought I’d expand a little on that idea.  You see we’ve spent over 50 years “doing development” in the global south and in some places people are no better off than they were 50 years ago.

(I guess I should duck for cover now as some of you howl in protest and throw things at the screen!)

You see, this is true because we did not always ask communities and countries what they needed or how to do things in their country most successfully.  We spent a long time telling the south what was going to happen, rather than listening to the south to understand what the real priorities were.  In development terms the only programme to have successfully achieved its aims was the eradication of Smallpox (feel free to send me details of others that you know of) in 1981.  Our hardest lesson was the response to the HIV epidemic in the mid-1980’s onwards, when countries and communities needed our help with a very private and intimate epidemic, and we forced our own values and priorities onto southern communities.  No wonder early attempts to curtail the virus failed.  Questions are being asked over the poor long-term performance of agriculture programmes and micro-finance programmes; and even the recent Ebola outbreak has challenged our understanding of the role of development in the south.

For me the truth is straightforward: we did too much talking for the past 50 years and not enough listening.  Even terms such as “the global south” are misleading and satisfy only NGOs’ needs.  “The global south” includes countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, the northern hemisphere, the western and eastern hemispheres, but is apparently better than talking about developing countries and economies and even the third world.  Such terms only add to the sense of top-down decision making by people who are removed from the reality on the ground.

The more we listen to what communities tell us about their priorities and needs, the better our support for them is going to be.  I guess we do all want to see a diverse, healthy, happy and successfully world.  But that reality might not match the vision that drives you in your work.  And it most like won’t always match the priorities and interests of donors and donor countries either.

Perhaps its time to make a space at the development table for the people we say we are trying to help?


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