I recently returned from a trip to Central America with 4 the World. We were doing needs assessments, an important part of the organization’s mission. Their model has three parts 1) identify communities in need, 2) assess needs, and 3) collaborate with the communities to solve the problems.
It makes sense. Of course you would go and see what is needed before you started fundraising or designing programs. But it doesn’t always happen in other organizations and it’s harder than it seems.
In order to really hear the community, I had to first think about my assumptions. What did I expect to hear? What did I assume the needs would be? Researchers call this bracketing out own’s subjectivity in order to allow the truth to be uncovered. Besides stripping down my own subjectivity, I had to intentionally think about the subjectivity of others that I had picked up along the way. I have done extensive research on education development, so I also had to strip away the past experiences of the authors I read.
This all took a lot of time, but was so important to be able to be as objective as possible and really open myself up to hearing what the community wanted help with. And you know what? Even though the communities I visited were just kilometers apart, they had different needs. One school needed a breakfast program because the kids came to school hungry. This made sense to me because pupil feeding programs are a standard education development solution. But, the school down the road is almost all farming families, and they said hunger was not a problem for their school. If I would have done a one-size-fits all program based on my research and my own assumptions, I would have wasted resources on food for a community that had different needs.
Listening is the first step in helping other people, be it through international nongovernment organizations or our own family.