We Are Committed to Listen to You

February 7, 2013 | Isabella Jean

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“We Are Committed to Listen to You” says the sign on a feedback box installed outside a temporary school building in Otash camp for the internally displaced people in South Darfur.

The box is maintained by World Vision-Sudan, and the children attending this school regularly fill out feedback forms, which encourage them to “make a suggestion, give feedback or make a complaint related to World Vision’s commitments, program or staff conduct.”  In addition to feedback boxes there are other mechanisms for gathering and responding to suggestions and complaints from camp residents, including a ‘community help desk’ that functions during monthly food distributions.

In 2011, CDA undertook a research project to learn about the ways in which aid providers gather and respond to feedback from local people. Many organizations we interviewed emphasized the importance of listening to recipients’ voices to improve program quality and accountability but few had well documented examples of complete feedback loops where feedback information is not simply gathered, but is acted on and a response is communicated back to the person/people who raised the issue. There are on-going efforts to demonstrate how these feedback processes work with attention on accountability to affected populations and aid recipients growing in many quarters in the aid system. However, much remains to be learned about what makes feedback mechanisms effective.

World Vision is among many aid agencies that are strengthening their commitment to listen and to respond to the people they intend to help.  In December 2012, World Vision hosted CDA’s Listening Program and ALNAP on a visit to study effective feedback mechanisms with affected populations.  Darfur remains a challenging environment for enacting effective feedback loops, where security risks are high for both aid agency staff and aid recipients who want to engage in conversations. Certain topics, such as overall security, safety in the camps, and returns to original settlements, are considered off-limits due to highly sensitive nature of the negotiations between the Government of Sudan and fragmented insurgent groups in Darfur.  Some areas are geographically remote and the roads connecting to them often unsafe with access barred either by national security units or the rebels. Other camps are nearby but also very politicized where people don’t feel safe providing feedback on sensitive issues in the open (i.e. such as mismanagement of aid resources by traditional leadership in the camps) for fear of being watched by ‘gatekeepers’ and ‘minders’ inside the camp who have retaliated in the past.  Aid agencies worry that they are not hearing the voices of a “silent population in the camps that is afraid to complain.”

Establishing feedback loops in restricted and conflict-affected settings requires an added vigilance and sensitivity given the safety concerns for both the recipients and aid providers.  In Sudan, where aid workers are increasingly viewed with suspicion by the national government authorities, there are multiple barriers to engaging with aid recipients and soliciting their views. This often limits the scope of the conversations that aid agencies can have with the people they aim to support.  Our recent joint CDA-ALNAP visit to Pakistan this January highlighted similar challenges of access to communities and reaching beyond the “gatekeepers”.  And yet – despite all odds and barriers – the commitment to improve accountability to affected populations by listening to and responding to feedback has not waned. In fact, these types of efforts are on the rise.

We were inspired to learn about a number of innovative and effective ways that have been devised to reach more people with transparent messages about assistance, to open more lines for two-way communication, to capture more voices and to respond in a timely fashion.  We will be highlighting some of these examples in forthcoming case studies on effective feedback mechanisms in humanitarian settings here and on ALNAP’s website.  In the meantime, please get in touch if you have examples of effective feedback mechanisms to share and watch this space!

About the author

Isabella Jean joined CDA in 2007 and is the co-director of our Collaborative Learning wing. Her professional expertise is in conflict-sensitivity, peacebuilding effectiveness, program design, monitoring and evaluation methods, and feedback loops. Isabella has led collaborative learning processes and field research in Africa, Asia, Middle East and Caucasus. In 2012, she co-authored CDA’s book, Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of Aid. Isabella continues to lead research on feedback loops and supports CDA’s work on peacebuilding evaluation. Internally, Isabella supports CDA’s monitoring and evaluation efforts to capture the results of our initiatives.


  1. Nora Lester Murad

    In Palestine, we are thinking about how to set up a complaint mechanism whereby local community groups could raise concerns about the policies and activities of international organizations. The idea is both to systematically collect data that is currently ad hoc or just rumors (some very troubling) and also to develop methods for fair and transparent investigation and reporting about complaints in order to improve the system. We are interested in single-case complaints like complaints of unfairness in grant decisions but also wider issues like waste of aid money on international staff salaries. Has anyone heard about complaint mechanisms like this in other parts of the world? If so, please get in touch with Dalia Association in Palestine.

    • Isabella Jean

      Hello Nora — thanks for writing! Through the action research that CDA’s Listening Program is currently doing with ALNAP we are looking at feedback mechanisms that have been established by humanitarian agencies and specifically at the question of what makes them effective. The goal is to produce a guidance document that would help other agencies to prioritize the features that need immediate attention and investment when establishing feedback mechanisms. There are many experienced agencies that have been developing their internal monitoring, accountability and feedback/complaints handling mechanisms and some of them have posted their resource guides and manuals online. I encourage you to look at these because much of the general structure and set-up is applicable to both humanitarian and development settings. Please see two examples below:

      Save the Children Pakistan Monitoring and Accountability Manual

      World Vision Complaints and Response Mechanisms Resource Guide

      In CDA’s report “Feedback Mechanisms In International Assistance Organizations”
      http://www.cdainc.com/cdawww/pdf/other/lp_feedback_research_report_Pdf_1.pdf — we summarize the findings gleaned from desk study and interviews with a range of organizations – humanitarian, development, public health – on what the key challenges and areas for improvement are for agencies that want to listen and respond to people they aim to support.

      Also check out Keystone Accountability work on surveying partners of international NGOs: http://www.keystoneaccountability.org/services/surveys/ngos

      To get broader feedback on aid effectiveness overall — we encourage agencies to incorporate open-ended listening into their on-going monitoring and evaluation efforts — and to actively solicit feedback on such questions during visits, consultations and other dialogue opportunities. Please get in touch if you want to learn more about this!



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