Voices from the Ground or how to work better together in international development

The Community Solutions Program (CSP) fellows based in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area, organized (with support from OpenGov Hub and IREX) an event on November 2nd, 2016, aiming to create another bridge for communication between international organizations working in development and their end beneficiaries. The idea came up after we realized that the international organizations we interacted with are asking themselves a common question: what is our role and our legitimacy at local level, when we are so far away of the difficulties on the ground?

CSP fellows are exceptional young civil society leaders working on a variety of social issues in Africa, the Middle East, Central Eastern Europe, South Central Asia, Asia Pacific, and South America. Most of the fellows have partnered with or been end receivers of international development programs, so the idea came naturally.

 The event had the participation of over 60 people who engaged in some ‘hot topics’ like:

  1. Education and development within emergency/conflict zones
  2. Open data and media in closed societies
  3. Empowering women through entrepreneurship
  4. Challenges and opportunities in local funding
  5. How to work locally to help the environment

After the welcoming remarks from Nada Zohdy, the OpenGov Hub manger and Thomas Laferriere, CSP manager, Nada led five CSP fellows from Syria, Uganda, Romania (yep, that was me), Philippines, and Bangladesh into an honest discussion on our experiences on a variety of topics, from serving women organizations, farmers’ groups and micro-entrepreneurs, to anticorruption work or helping displaced families.

After that, I have presented the results of a survey conducted among the entire CSP network from all over the world. The aim of this survey was to create a space for the rest of the network to speak their mind on what works and what doesn’t in international development. After that, all participants engaged in a breakout discussion, tackling the five thematic areas of the event.

I want to share with you some of the main findings of this event, as it raised some good questions.

Both the survey and the discussions reinforced the idea that the more qualitative the data collected directly from end beneficiaries, the more relevant and sustainable the program will be. Likewise, the more their feedback and engagement is incorporated pre, during, and post program implementation, the more potential for success the program will have. This way, we can avoid examples like the one a CSP from Ghana mentioned, where an international NGO bought a water tank that is not able to be used during the drain season because the NGO didn’t consider the entire process and how to get water to fill the tank.

The majority of the 81 respondents of the survey, when asked what topics they consider to be the most important to tackle in the next five years, mentioned access to education for all groups and empowering women and entrepreneurship as their top choices. (These choices were first ranked all over the world, except Europe, Central Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean). These topics contain a lot of underlying educational and societal issues. Unfortunately, in most societies, it is easier for men to network, to access both financial and human resources, and even to open bank accounts!

Opening data, democracy, and justice were ranked first by the CSP fellows in Europe and Central Asia. Participants dedicated a discussion group on how this concept  can be sometimes used for manipulation by the media and agenda setting. Opening the data becomes more and more difficult to address when the context is not favorable: lack of internet, lack of devices, and a stringent need for capacity building, when media is politicized and just simulates the idea of an open government. Another good question was discussed: what is to be done when open data shows that money is not actually spent on those in need because the top of the pyramid is so corrupt they hold on to the money? Should we stop the funding or create another set of rules?

The Refugee crisis was another topic mentioned several times—what is our role in this, as humans in a globalized world? Recalling Joe, a CSP fellow from Palestine’s, words that this is something that affects us all, there is no event that we can keep isolated from. It was noted that the biggest challenge is our perception of refugees and recognizing their strengths, not just their weaknesses. Plus, we need to find ways to have humanitarian and development organizations collaborate. Think of the strengths and not the weaknesses of the refugees.

Where local funding is concerned, the discussion was on how local organizations can access local funds in difficult contexts. How can we help them increase crowdfunding campaigns, involve local and international businesses in corporate social initiatives, and increase individual and in-kind donations? That last part is particularly difficult in contexts where people live under the poverty line, where even volunteering has such a huge opportunity cost. Nevertheless, as challenging as it is, working together to do capacity building and creating a critical mass that no longer accepts mass manipulation and corruption looks like the best investment to make!

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When discussing how to improve our collaboration, there are some interesting findings:

  1. Stop making bureaucracy more important than the actual grassroots work. Stop faking the work by using most of the money for reporting and expensive conferences (this meaning both ends for this conversation: international and local organizations).
  2. We know that an image can say a 1000 words, but can we use images of people in great suffering without their consent and sometimes without really helping them? Is increasing awareness enough without being followed by concrete measures?
  3. Engage beneficiaries directly in the design phase, implementation, and monitoring—not only that there will be more out of the box ideas that will appear, but this is a great way for maintaining the sustainability of the program. Note that only 31% of the survey’s respondents feel that feedback from the end beneficiaries (if it is even taken) is even being incorporated in the projects moving forward.
  4. Citizens can take the place of journalists as producers and disseminators of data, in societies in which media is not independent, using very creative ways of communication (e.g. gathering under the umbrella of politically correct themes while more clandestinely sharing information about sensitive topics). In those societies, where there is obviously a question of legitimacy coming from local governments, what works is finding the common ground by finding the common problem to tackle.
  5. Real implementation and sustainability (and not just strategies created for creation’s sake) is a key message that was delivered by the panelists. With international help in creating national strategies and governmental programs, it is extremely important that international stakeholders not see this as “project based”, especially when the collaboration is not at all free for the receiving country as is paid from citizens’ tax money!

We hope that this key points that were discussed yesterday are helpful. For more info or get in contact with a CSP fellow please visit https://www.irex.org/project/community-solutions. I say thanks to Kristi Arbogast from the OpenGovHub who helped me organize the event and make this piece of article better.

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