Listening within international NGOs has far-reaching implications; it is key to the effectiveness of partnerships, programmes and ultimately to challenging the very power dynamics that are at the root of poverty and marginalisation. And yet both the concept and practice of listening are often under-valued in a results-oriented NGO culture (ALNAP 2012).
Is it possible to move towards the concept of a ‘Listening Organisation’, an international development NGO that is more proactively aware of who is being listened to both passively and actively, and who is being ignored? And can an organisation actually ‘listen’? Or is this simply a metaphor for the way in which individuals within an organisation listen to, tune out and interpret what multiple individuals outside the organisation are saying? Does the way ‘listening’ takes place in an organisation across different languages affect ultimate development outcomes?
These questions were discussed at the recent workshop ‘Listening, Power and Inclusion: Languages in Development NGOs’ in London on 2nd November 2016. The workshop, jointly organised by INTRAC, the University of Reading and the University of Portsmouth, is part of a three-year research project ‘The Listening Zones of NGOs: Languages and Cultural Knowledge in Development Programmes’. This research update seeks to explore the themes further, reflecting on how listening takes place within international development NGOs as complex, multi-lingual organisations.
At the level of the individual, the factors that most influence the outcome of listening are the attitude of the listener, and also the strength of the voice being listened to. At the organisational level, there are clearly very complex dynamics at work within international development NGOs that determine which voices are listened to by staff at different levels within the organisation, which voices are influential and which voices are ignored. Working internationally and across cultures and languages, who is being listened to and in what way will be influenced by many different factors such as:
- Funding processes and the use of ‘donor language’ and terminology.
- Power dynamics between NGOs and partners, and also within NGOs as complex organisations with international structures.
- The tyranny of English: the levels of competence in English on one side and the quality of non-English language competence on the other.
- The complexity of choosing operational languages at different levels and the resourcing and quality of language service provision (for example, translation, interpreting and publications in local languages).
- The tyranny of the loud voice: the strength, volume and effectiveness of the communicator seeking to be listened to.
- The history of listening within the organisation and way its approaches have developed and changed.
A ‘Listening Organisation’ would be more consciously and proactively aware of who is being listened to both passively and actively, and in what ways stakeholders were influencing the organisation’s decision-making processes at various levels. Perhaps most importantly, such an approach would focus on regularly questioning which actors were at risk of being ignored and would take action to ensure that key stakeholders were not left out of decisions and debates on the basis of cultural and linguistic biases.
As the recent workshop highlighted, with the general move towards an emphasis on technical expertise amongst many international NGOs, there is a risk that contextual knowledge and the resourcing of language and cultural understanding are not given priority. The challenge remains for NGOs to cultivate the discipline and practice of listening and, within the pressures of a results-oriented funding environment, to work consciously towards a greater depth of contextual understanding of the people they are working with and the geographical and linguistic contexts they are working in.