I have just returned from a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s been inspiring and depressing all at the same time. I was inspired by the productivity of the population, their resourcefulness to scrape a living out of anything, their fortitude to keep going in the face of so many risks and setbacks. I was depressed by the man-made nature of the immense suffering that is found across the DRC and the inevitability of ongoing suffering for years to come regardless of the money that is pumped into this country year on year to help the most vulnerable.
The research shows that contexts of protracted conflict are the places where we see the least progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. Where zero famine seems so possible when you look at the fertile earth, productive population and wealth found within the country. Yet so far away from the chronic poverty you see across a country the size of Europe. Where leaving no one behind seems a relevant call for this densely populated part of the continent yet seems an impossible feat when you see how long it takes to get a 100kms in the rainy season and how little infrastructure there is to access large swathes of the population.
The complex multifaceted nature of this context and the lack of making sufficient progress over the last 20 plus years, makes me question if any outsider could ever understand things well enough to propose viable sustainable solutions? This question resonates for so many other contexts where I have worked as well (Syria, Iraq, Haiti, Central African Republic, Afghanistan, etc).
What I can’t stop thinking about is why do the locals who have a proven skill set for survival and are able to navigate the local system better than any outsider (even those from the capital, let alone foreigners) not have a greater say in how ‘we’ can best support them to help themselves. It takes years working here to fully comprehend the impossible task of a foreigner understanding or being able to significantly influence how things get done here.
What if there was a way for affected populations to share their feedback and suggestions on an open source platform, that anyone could see, but that ensured anonymity. What if the population could instigate the feedback on their own, without waiting for surveys, assessments or others to define what to ask them, if at all? What if we could respond to feedback directly as a member of the same community, or an organisation (government or NGO) providing the support and that this was also all open for all to see and engage with.
Many believe that this is not possible due to protection issues and that people wouldn’t feedback. There is this inherent assumption of needing to protect. Does this assumption stem from our system being based on a principle of charity?
We used to think we couldn’t give cash as it may be too easy to be stolen or would increase the likelihood of fraud. We needed to define and truck in what people needed to protect them. Now research clearly shows that there is reduced duplication of beneficiaries on a list, when cash is being used rather than in kind and it is widely accepted that the use of cash increases the dignity of the end user.
Is the reticence to open source feedback mechanisms also a flawed assumption? Maybe conversely there are a number of protection issues which can be solved by using more transparent approaches to information sharing. Maybe enabling open source feedback, through the use of technology, would empower local people to share their views and let those who understand how things work propose solutions. If it was open source the sector could use it collectively, across our various silos (organisations, development/ humanitarian, WASH vs Food Security etc), to learn, adapt and engage more directly.
What if people felt safe enough and trust in the anonymity (which would empower freedom from labels such as gender, LGBT) to speak out. What if numbers gathered around key issues and could bring greater accountability. Thinking of #metoo being a recent example.
One way to move away from using charity as the underlying driver of Aid is to give affected populations more of a say in what they receive and to align funding to this. Not only will it empower affected populations to find solutions, but it will also improve the effectiveness of the aid provided.
If we agree with an assumption that donors want to see affected populations lives improved or saved as a result of Aid, then I don’t understand why donors don’t demand to hear in a transparent way from the people they want to help, like the private sector requires from its consumer. Current feedback is cleaned and controlled, designed from the centre and shared on a need to know basis.
If we agree that the Aid sector is here to do itself out of a job, by reducing risks, empowering local solutions to local problems and building resilience among communities, then the facts say we are not doing a very good job as the sector continues to grow and the needs continue to be outside of our ability or budgets to respond. Maybe we need to acknowledge that we don’t have all of the answers and we should be listening to and learning from local communities more when applying for funding or delivering services.
If we support the World Humanitarian Summits Grand Bargain commitment to the localisation agenda, maybe we need to find a way to hear from local populations more openly, more timely and more frequently on who is providing the types of services that help them the most and who is adapting based on their local needs.