1,000 stories from southern Africa

A flooded countryside in northern Namibia after torrential rains. What did officials from IFRC and the Namibian Red Cross learn from the stories of people affected by drought and floods in the southern African country? Photo by: Aaron Goodman / CC BY-ND

A key message emerging loud and clear from the recent World Humanitarian Summit regional consultations for eastern and southern Africa is the need to scale up and improve ways of listening to people affected by crises.

This is partly a matter of dignity, but it is also a matter of rooting interventions in the beliefs and motives that will sustain them.

Civil society organizations and community representatives remind us that listening is not the same as routinely asking people to list their basic survival needs. Listening means being open to hearing the various ways that challenges and solutions are perceived subjectively by people in crises. It means not limiting our interest to those areas where aid agencies have a predetermined agenda of services to offer.

In the weeks prior to regional consultations held last week in Pretoria, South Africa, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Namibian Red Cross listened to 1,000 stories from people experiencing either regular droughts or floods in Namibia. A preliminary analysis of the data points to four issues that should be useful insights to anyone planning to assist.

1. The majority of people believe that they are facing challenges that are out of their hands to influence. Hope in the future and confidence in one's own ability to make positive changes are important prerequisites for sustainable improvements in well-being and livelihoods. Those who believe that the future lacks hope will be less likely to adapt and invest in their future, and are more likely to be passive in the face of recurrent threats. They are more likely to treat aid not as an investment in change but as an opportunity to alleviate immediate needs. Spending time understanding and encouraging hope and confidence may be a crucial foundation for risk management and long-term resilience strategies.

2. People tend to feel that the information required to address a problem is available, the challenge is in the capacity to act on the information. Many aid interventions are built on the premise that people would act differently, perhaps more safely, if they had necessary information. Indications in this research suggest that absence of information is not the issue — but rather the means, motivation and confidence to put it to good use. If this is true, it should caution the belief that disseminating information is an end in itself, and instead encourage efforts to understand more deeply people's motives and capacities to act on it or not act on it.

3. While people share common risks, mitigation is often prioritized at a household level. Although threats such as drought and floods may be common to whole communities, people often identify their immediate solutions at a household level. A family may need a fence to protect their land plot from animals or a few more meters of piping to bring water to crops. These individual but essential mitigation measures are easily missed when prescribing solutions to large groups of people at once, as is often the case when designing projects for entire communities. Can assistance be flexible enough to respond to the need for small investments at a household level? Would that generate more ownership and development than broader, more generic interventions at community level?

4. Communities see new ideas and new approaches as being essential to improving their situation. One might have assumed that rural and pastoralist communities would be resistant to the idea of change and would prefer to rely on traditional coping mechanisms. In fact, the majority of participants felt that new ideas and approaches are needed to address issues of primary concern. Therefore, introducing innovations for the most part is likely to be welcomed, providing the innovations are rooted in local ownership and optimism.

Listening to these stories is not intended as a substitute for needs assessments, especially in acute crises, but to remind us that the sustainability of an intervention is likely to depend on subjective factors that are all too easy to miss when looking at people through the lens of any single issue. Listening is a gesture of dignity but it is also a crucial skill for effective humanitarian and development work.

More information on the Sensemaker methodology used in this research can be found at www.narrativeinsights.com  

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About the author

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    Alexander Matheou

    Alexander Matheou is the executive director of international for the British Red Cross. He has worked in the humanitarian sector for 20 years and has experience of working in the Middle East, South Asia, the former Soviet Union and Africa. His major areas of thematic experience include disaster management, risk reduction, good donorship practices, and aid effectiveness.