Are we ready? How organisational culture needs to change to put people at the centre

30 November 2016 | Sphere Project

Listen Learn Act in South Sudan

Listening to the experiences of South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia, March 2016. Photo © Thomas Skov Hansen/DCA

By Nik Rilkoff (*)

When it comes to meeting humanitarian accountability commitments, many organisations have put time, money and effort into information systems and complaints feedback mechanisms. However, it seems that we haven't got it right - yet.

This is one of the lessons emerging from the Listen Learn Act (LLA) project, which is field-testing an innovative method to elicit community feedback in relation to quality and accountability under the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS). The Sphere Project is a close collaborator in this project.

The first of two LLA learning reports shows that it is the performance against the CHS commitments 4 and 5 - information, participation and complaints - that most frequently received the lowest scores. And this across all four pilot countries and with all 15 participating agencies.

The limited knowledge communities have about projects and how to be confident that their feedback on them will be taken seriously is a disappointing finding but one that will not surprise many in the humanitarian sector. There is widespread acknowledgement that communities struggle for space to participate in decision-making that affects them.

It is precisely this challenge that the LLA project is seeking to remedy through a formal process of community survey, feedback and dialogue.

But having the skills isn't enough. We need leadership and strong management support for change. Organisations need to be willing to open up, give up some control in decision-making and support frontline staff in listening, learning and acting.

Martina's story

After two days of Listen Learn Act training, I sat over coffee with Martina [not her real name] as her story came out. A frontline programme manager with an international NGO, she had recently been hospitalised with exhaustion.

Tiring and endless hours spent looking after her team and listening to countless stories of exclusion and unmet needs from the refugees around her created an unbearable load for her to carry. Unable to respond to beneficiaries' concerns and weighed down by community feedback about which she could do nothing, her eyes filled with tears and I could only listen.

The donor of Martina's project doesn't want feedback. Her team is not allowed to interview households, so people's concerns about the timing of food delivery or the devastating impact of an elderly neighbour being deemed "not vulnerable enough" are left out of monitoring reports. People have stopped lodging complaints because nothing is ever done about them.

But every day, Martina's team is in contact with refugees and every day the problems outnumber the solutions - creating stress and distress among staff. One step up the organigram, senior managers have been unable to advocate with donors to allow changes to programmes based on community feedback and therefore cannot empower Martina to close the loop, discuss solutions with affected people and enact programme changes to improve their impact.

An irony not lost on Martina is that she and her team had just spent two days strengthening their skills in listening, learning and acting on community feedback.

The training builds on Ground Truth Solutions' Constituent Voice methodology. This tool is being used by frontline staff to systematically ask affected people how they think humanitarians are performing against the CHS, measure "where they are" and then sit with communities to understand where they see the gaps and how they think these can be resolved.

After that, the natural step is for humanitarian staff to either make their own, internal adjustments to how and what they are delivering, or to refer the problems to other responders and duty-bearers.

Frontline staff know, better than anyone else, the importance of building trust, local ownership and involving people in decision-making. But what does Martina do when her management and donor won't allow her to use these skills?

Towards changes in organisational culture

In practice, listening to people takes time - a precious commodity for frontline staff tasked with both delivering projects and fulfilling complex and frequent donor reporting required by aid organisations since meeting donor conditions and securing and maintaining funding are priorities for them.

Reporting "upwards" is an extractive and time-consuming process, part of a one-way information flow, since staff's reporting efforts rarely result in feedback from the donors who receive them - another irony, as LLA and others promote "closed community feedback loops".

That's why LLA's focus is on practical and simple techniques to improve accountability practice. Collect usable and actionable feedback and then do something with it: close the loop by discussing the monitoring results with communities, making sure we understand the issues and their possible causes. Think of responses and solutions together with people.

There are simple, practical steps that management in humanitarian (and development!) organisations can take to establish and promote an organisational culture that is consistent with the principles of the CHS. Ask yourself, can your organisation:

  • Give staff the space in their work day to listen to people and act on feedback?
  • Let go of the reins a little and open decision-making processes to the people affected by those decisions? 
  • Build the expectation for community engagement into job descriptions and recognise staff for doing this? 
  • Include closing feedback loops in monitoring good practice guides? Why not make it an expectation of staff, while supporting them to go right back to communities to probe the causes of issues discovered through feedback mechanisms, ask affected people how they define a better scenario and what we can each/both do to improve?

Are humanitarian managers willing to walk the accountability walk and put quality and accountability commitments first and foremost? Are they prepared and willing to support their staff to listen, learn and act?

This is one of the key recommendations coming out of the Listen Learn Act project so far: Humanitarian organisations need to place greater emphasis on routinely listening to people and responding to their concerns.

The LLA pilot process has begun to strengthen the responsiveness of the participating organisations to community feedback on accountability. This is one of the most significant achievements of the project so far, but it is one that is also fragile and easy to undo.

It is essential that organisational culture shifts to ways of working that routinely place communities at the centre of our work.

* Nik Rilkoff is the Project Manager for Listen Learn Act, a consortium formed by DanChurchAid and Save the Children, partnered with Ground Truth Solutions and funded by EU Humanitarian Aid.

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