A practical tool for listening to the people that matter

Jessica Fullwood-Thomas Climate Change, General

Jessica Fullwood-Thomas introduces a new online tool by Oxfam, which can help practitioners to better listen to the viewpoints of the communities we’re working in. 

TS Elliot famously said, ‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’ Increasingly we have ever greater quantities and sources of data, but do we forget to seek what really matters? That is, the opinions and experiences of those at the sharp end. Voices matter, opinions and perceptions are as important as fact in terms of influencing behaviours and decision-making.

Listening to the viewpoints of the communities we are trying to work with should be the starting point. That’s why we have developed the Vulnerability and Risk Analysis tool (VRA), a simple step-by-step guide, this online resource positions the community as the experts in understanding the problems and identifying solutions. By unearthing people’s views on the sources of their vulnerability and the types of risks they face, it provides useful context for almost any programme. Designed to support workshop facilitators, NGO practitioners and researchers, it is easy to use and can inform both project design, M&E processes like baselines and wider strategic thinking.

Oxfam believes in a people-centred approach to understanding the risks that people face

Using a tool that prioritises the viewpoints of communities can help lead to more democratic and inclusive knowledge exchange. It also helps facilitate the active participation of marginalised groups. In practice, we have used the tool to identify the divergent experiences of South Sudanese people during the lean season where gendered food consumption patterns and the care burden of women meant their food security concerns were different to those of men. Oxfam in Bangladesh also learnt a valuable lesson when conducting a VRA in Tala, where we discovered that the assumptions made by NGO practitioners did not match the priorities of the community. Using this approach helps us to ensure projects are driven by what is viable, wanted and achievable. It also encourages feelings of mutual responsibility and collective action beyond the ambition and scale of a short-term donor funded initiative.

Qualitative stakeholder-led tools like the Vulnerability and Risk Analysis can offer the chance to step into the shoes of another. Focusing on people, rather than technocratic solutions, means the data collection process in itself becomes an important output. We saw this in Malawi when doing a VRA with stakeholders in the tea sector. We brought together employers, employees and government policymakers to sit for the first time to discuss how the ‘big issues’ of the industry affect everyone in different ways. Importantly it created a safe space to share concerns and unpack misunderstandings within the community. Assessments done in this participatory way that also engage with issues of inequality, marginalisation and shared good governance help ensure that principles of good programming are used at all stages, from programme design to content delivery.

Everyone should have the ability to make choices about their own development

If like me, you accept this as one of the key principles of good development then why is it we spend so much time idealising complex systems analysis and quantified data sets to tell us what people need? Or better still what they want! Is it that donors need us to prove an idea through numbers or majority verdicts? Is it that, in the current self-protectionist political environment, we no longer trust gut instinct or have lost our appetite for risk and mistakes? Worse still, is it that we have become so insular in our self-entitled expertise that we no longer respect the opinion of those we work on behalf of?

Transforming knowledge systems through alternative decision-making spaces requires humility and flexibility from the sector. True bottom-up decision making has the potential to offer us something beyond just more accurate information. It changes who is included, whose opinion matters most, how information is shared and agreed by consensus. It is as much about unlearning as learning for those who think they have the answers. All these things are the foundations of an enabling environment for sustainable and more equitable development.

Our new online tool champions this approach and could help you embed a more human-centred approach in your programme.

Visit the VRA online tool

Read the methodology behind the tool


Jessica Fullwood-Thomas

Jessica Fullwood-Thomas is Resilience Senior Advisor at Oxfam GB