Listening to those we serve: the heartbeat of Doing Development Differently

Daniel Stevens

Director of Accountability Operations and Transparency, World Vision International


*All views and statements represent those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Accountable Now.



You may have heard about ‘Doing Development Differently’ (DDD), a broad movement of development analysts and practitioners who share a view of why aid often has little impact: in short, ‘complex’ development problems can’t be solved by simple, top-down interventions.


What we as CSOs might not have fully appreciated is how strong an endorsement this movement is for Accountable Now’s ‘dynamic accountability’ approach, as well as for its member’s common aspiration to systematically listen to primary stakeholders.


The six DDD principles include:

  • How local problems should be “debated, defined and refined by local people” in an “ongoing process” that has to be “‘locally owned’ in reality”;
  • How design and implementation is driven by “rapid cycles of planning, action, reflection and revision (drawing on local knowledge, feedback and energy)”;
  • How successful interventions should “build trust, empower people and promote sustainability”.

Given that CSO’s highly value this endorsement of practices, it is somewhat surprising that until quite recently the movement has been dominated by academics and donors. As Oxfam’s Duncan Green noted in a blog last year, he has often been the token CSO voice and as such welcomed an initiative to bring together a number of CSOs who had started to engage in DDD and related adaptive management conversations. The result, summarised in another of Duncan’s blogs, is a ‘pleasingly brief’ position paper that argues that INGOs, which have built up extensive experience of engaging with local communities and partners, have a particular contribution to make, specifically calling for 1) Localizing power and ownership in DDD practice, 2) Funding and accountability for adaptation and 3) Institutionalising DDD across large agencies.


This final challenge of how we institutionalise adaptive management and learning in our organisations is for many of us, the biggest one. The position paper notes how the practice of annual reporting against the Global Standard for CSO Accountability by Accountable Now members is a primary example of how the institutionalisation of adaptive management can be done. In addition to World Vision’s recognition that explicit commitments to being responsive to our stakeholders provides a very healthy check against the tendency of any large organisation to focus internally, we have also found it useful to use the DDD principles to assess our own progress in being responsive, and have since shared a paper reflecting on how well we are doing on each principle. Pointing to this external movement has also helped those of us working on accountability to make the case internally for dynamic accountability.


Peer learning can also help challenge us and generate insights into how we can better practice listening to our primary stakeholders. I personally have found that the Peer Advice Group on Complaints Handling Mechanisms provides a useful way of getting fresh perspectives on a common challenge and as many of us look at this, among other areas, as we respond to increased expectations of our safeguarding, these kinds of insight exchange opportunities will become even more important.


Doing Development Differently then, at its heart, listens and responds: both to our primary stakeholders but also to our peers, as we continue to embrace the principle that development is complex. It is only in positioning ourselves as responsive partners of the communities we serve, that we will have a sustainable impact.

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