We Are Trying to Listen
In the February-March issue of envío, (vol. 16, no. 187-188), we published an open letter of resignation by Andrés McKinley, then Central American field representative for Community Aid Abroad, an Australian non-governmental organization (NGO). In his letter, McKinley criticized the recent approach of his and other NGOs from the North toward countries of the South. Respecting the right of reply and encouraging open debate, we publish below the e-mail response we received in May from Community Aid Abroad. We regret that we did not have space to publish it earlier.
The inter-organizational memorandum published under the title "Desarrollo: La Gran Mentira" in your Spanish publication and "NGOs - Who's Making the Decisions" in the English edition deserves a response. The article raises several issues of importance, but is also factually incorrect. Community Aid Abroad has sought this right of reply to correct the latter and add to thinking about the former.
In 1992 Community Aid Abroad established decentralisation as a policy whereby decision making and strategic planning would be gradually devolved to counterparts, in order to give them greater power over the development assistance being offered. The establishment of Field Offices and advisory committees has been one part of this process. Following an organisational review in 1996, a further commitment was made to continue with the process in regions where it could be adequately resourced and supported. But attention was also directed to the potential for Field Offices and Advisory Committees to become further layers in a bureaucracy, insulating Community Aid Abroad from hearing the voices of the people we want to empower.
Consequently, all desk staff were directed to begin strategic review of the actual impact of the processes in their region. Mr. McKinley quotes selectively. He asserts that the organisation wrote: "Future management of the program will fall much more to the desk in Australia" but omits the end of the sentence "in conjunction with yourself and the [Community Aid Abroad Regional Advisory Committee]." Community Aid Abroad wanted to both express its commitment to decentralisation of power, but also start to review the processes upon which we had relied to achieve this situation.
Participation from the field is more than simply the feedback from one employee or even a committee. It is an ongoing process of dialogue between counterparts and the agency at all levels - including its field representative. By directing staff to take more active roles in assisting the strategic impact of programs, Community Aid Abroad was both dealing with a tight budget and asking the hard question of whether we are achieving our policy aims. This is obviously challenging for staff but to suggest it is a reversal of previous processes is factually untrue.
Community Aid Abroad has been struggling with the issue of how to increase the voice and control of our partners in the field, both within our own structures and those structures like the World Bank which have such control over the policies of regions like Central America. The complexity of many funding arrangements, the variety of stakeholders in any project/program - both in the field and in the donor context, as well as the increasing financial pressures experienced within donor country economies, has meant that international NGOs are under increasing pressure to demonstrate results (in what is an outcome-saturated global culture). As well as this, duplication of efforts by international NGOs and at times, a lack of collaboration in the field has meant impact is reduced.
It was with the aim of overcoming some of these difficulties that the Community Aid Abroad decided to join forces with other Oxfams so as to maximise the impact of programs and advocacy efforts. Community Aid Abroad realises that to achieve a program with impact it must become a part of broader movements. However, far from creating a situation where participatory decision making is considered "overburdensome and unessential" Community Aid Abroad is positioning itself within the Oxfam harmonisation framework in a way that seeks to maximise partner participation and control.
During this process it has become clear that advisory groups are not the only way to influence organisational direction. Major program reviews are now being undertaken throughout the agency with the active participation and overall lead by counterparts. Far from not hearing their voice we are trying to learn to be quiet and 'listen.'
As a result of concerns expressed in the field over its capacity to accompany partners, Community Aid Abroad is shifting its strategic focus in the Central America. Community Aid Abroad aims to be more focused on learning and to be able to facilitate better support for its counterparts through reducing the spread of its program both geographically and sectorally. We are also looking for the connections between the communities participating in its own indigenous Australia program and those that are represented by our counterparts particularly in Guatemala.
The agenda and needs of the most vulnerable social groups - in particular the indigenous and traditional communities of Central America and Mexico - in the region, will continue to be at the centre of this focus into the next millennium. Because Community Aid Abroad has become aware of how the voices of these most marginalised people can be ignored, we have focused our attention specifically on these groups in order to maximise their views and issues within the Oxfam harmonised program.
The strategy now being developed speaks of the need to focus on women in the region, an area poorly neglected under the old strategy, and the need to better accompany counterparts through the following additional issues: land rights or defence of traditional land tenure systems; cultural recovery (religious, linguistic or authority systems; institution building and training; and promotion of traditional ecological knowledge and good environmental practices. This strategy is being developed through dialogue with these groups and not in isolation.
Community Aid Abroad is very aware of the need for people to be able to speak for themselves and determine their own development. How to support this, within a large organisational framework is a challenge facing all NGOs, both international and local. Our review and changes have been designed to refocus our energies towards closer work with counterparts. This sometimes requires us to shake up existing structures and challenge ourselves, including field staff, to a new direction. A painful process, as the previous article suggested, but as also suggested in that article, one essential to real empowerment.
Director, Overseas & Indigenous Australia Program