When the agenda gets in the way

How often does the development agenda actually get in the way of doing good?

When sticking to an agenda becomes more important than listening to what people are saying, that can unfortunately become commonplace.

Think of all the well-intentioned, but ultimately off-the-mark one-for-one campaigns. Think of the hype about microfinance as the way out of poverty, when it has turned out to be much more complicated. Think about the practice of shipping useless stuff to disaster victims, when often the most useful thing is cash.Think of all the development projects that have built schools, craft centers, latrines, wells, etc. that end up being useless to the communities they’re meant to help.

We see agendas getting in the way when certain reporters interview their subjects. And it can happen when the agenda of a person or entity in global development gets in the way of truly listening to the people the programs are meant to help. And this has the power to lead to more harm than good.

The pressures to see tangible results in global development projects are immense. Donors want to know that their money is going to good use. Aid workers are often under-paid and overworked (with some exceptions, of course). There’s always a deadline. There’s always more to do. We have to stick to an agenda to get it all done.

Or so the thinking goes.

When it's time to let go of the steering wheel...
When it’s time to let go of the steering wheel…

Of course you’re working towards goals and objectives, but when it comes to helping people, we can’t afford NOT to listen. We have to be willing to press pause on the agenda, so we can work better together.

The last time I assisted in evaluating a project, I interviewed one of the leaders of a grassroots organization in Peru. I had my list of questions, and I did get through them. But I found that his story was so much richer than the set of pre-formed boxes I was supposed to tick. So I slowed down. I listened, and asked questions based on what he actually said (rather than what I hoped he would say). And I learned more than I ever would have if I had just stuck to the agenda.

Many communications for development experts advocate for including participatory communications or storytelling in the design stage of the project (or process). It might mean holding your agenda loosely, or letting it go altogether. But it can lead to better insights that can create lasting change.

Casting off the agenda in this way makes for better problem-solving that includes the people we’re trying to help. And it’s an important step in better storytelling for, and about, international development.

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