The aid community has only just begun to study how to capture beneficiary feedback and use those insights to improve programming. Donors will need to devote greater resources and time to take full advantage of feedback’s potential, according to governance adviser at the U.K. Department for International Development Anna Densham.
Implementers need better framing, longer timelines, a more dramatic comparison for the impacts of feedback and a new way to approach feedback as a “disruptor,” she told development professionals on Monday at the London Feedback Summit, a gathering of funders and social change practitioners from across Europe examining the use of systematic feedback.
“We’re at the point where we’re bringing [recent experience with beneficiary feedback] together and looking at the next few years, and identifying what the agenda is,” Densham told a group of international development practitioners.
“My own role has been to sort of reflect on how we make sure the lessons are disseminated well within DfID.” Incorporating feedback requires a cultural change and more systematic thinking about best practices, she said.
Densham outlined four challenges she’s observed in closing the beneficiary feedback loop, both for DfID implementers and the donor itself.
Framing beneficiary feedback
Implementers need to develop “a really convincing narrative” about why feedback is important — and adds value for money. Even donors such as DfID have yet to find the right arguments.
DfID places a high premium on demonstrating results for every pound spent on aid. Making the case for an expensive text message-based survey mechanism, for example, or a full-time beneficiary feedback associate can be difficult when the benefits are hard to quantify, particularly early in a project’s timeline.
“There is a bit of a difficulty with beneficiary feedback in the sense that it relates to empowerment, accountability, participation, about digital, about youth and about so many different policy agendas,” Densham said. “And yet it adds something slightly different, and I think we need to be really, really good at articulating what that difference is.”
Beneficiary feedback programs suffer from one of the most perennial problems in development: short timelines. Four-year grants may not be sufficient to capture the full potential feedback could offer.
“We’ve got some really good lessons, but it’s going to be interesting to see how they develop over a longer time period, for example how you embed beneficiary feedback into the culture, both at the local level and then at the organizational level,” Densham said.
Many of the feedback pilots DfID funds for example in places such as Somaliland and Ethiopia only run for about two years, with the approach to gathering feedback evolving throughout that period. Densham said donors and organizations actually need about four years of feedback to harvest lessons, and some at the session argued even that might not be enough. One project adviser with Amref Health Africa working on a DfID-funded maternal and child health project in Ethiopia pointed out that it sometimes takes years just to get the right mix of feedback mechanisms for a given environment.
“We funded radio spots to alert people how to give feedback but then found out from a woman in a public meeting that actually, women never heard them because most women wouldn’t be listening at that time of day,” she said.
“No one was listening to them to begin with, but we didn’t realize until quite late. The [feedback] pilot wasn’t introduced until two years after the project started, so we didn’t realize until about the third year of the project,” she said.
Others said even the initial setup for feedback mechanisms, such as text messages and toll-free numbers, took months or even a year to launch because of local telecom capacity.
Between 2014/16 @dfid supported 7 NGOs to pilot Beneficiary Feedback Mechanisms as part of MNCH projects. Info here: https://t.co/wQdZOAzUIr
“Despite all the work we did to get text messages in, they weren’t even that popular,” Morgan Kindberg told Devex, a program manager for a Health Poverty Action project in Somalia. Kindberg said the toll-free number was much more popular for giving feedback, though it took about a year to get off the ground.
‘The placebo effect’
One challenge in making the case for beneficiary feedback is the lack of a strong comparative tool, Densham said.
“We need a placebo effect comparator to doing beneficiary feedback, because we need some really strong evidence that it makes a difference compared to not having it,” she said.
DfID has a sense of that comparative value, she explained, but only anecdotally. Implementers and DfID should innovate ways to provide comparative analysis, she said, and then present it in a compelling way.
One opportunity, Densham told Devex, is the recent push at DfID to share lessons across the agency and between implementing organizations.
“That’s what we’re trying to do, we’ve actually got an internal lesson learning seminar on Thursday, which harvests lessons from World Vision and Keystone to share across DfID,” she told Devex. “Then, what I’m hoping, is that in the new year we actually call together more programs, because there’s actually quite a lot going on aside from the pilots,” she said, referencing feedback already generated through other DfID programs.
Feedback as disruptor?
“I don’t think DfID’s using beneficiary feedback as a disruptor, and there are a number of really strong counter-incentives to seeing the kind of institutional revolution” that it could catalyze, Denshem said.
“I would be really interested in a conversation as we move forward about to what extent, within the international development community, we can change the way our organizations work,” she said. Both the rapid uptake of feedback into development operations and the sharing of lessons learned across implementer communities about feedback strategies, she said, could help ensure beneficiary feedback’s place in the development toolbox.
Seamus Anderson, sustainability adviser at World Vision agreed, warning that practitioners can’t fall into the trap of expecting certain new or high-tech feedback mechanisms to become sweeping solutions.
“It's not the technology that's disruptive,” he told Devex. “It's just the act of listening to and responding to feedback that does it. We can do that with or without technology.”
Molly is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in London, she covers U.K. foreign aid and trends in international development. She draws on her experience covering aid legislation and the USAID implementer community in Washington, D.C., as well as her time as a Fulbright Fellow and development practitioner in the Middle East to develop stories with insider analysis.
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