Last week I had the privilege of speaking at the Australian National University’s Australasian AID Conference in Canberra, alongside PNG’s always-insightful High Commissioner, John Kali.
It was a chance to talk about some of the great things we have been doing in PNG – and by “we” I don’t just mean my own Oil Search Foundation but also our many great partners.
But the real privilege, for me, came when I finally got the chance to close my mouth, and start to use my ears instead to hear what the other panel members had to say.
As one great thinker puts it, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”
I’m not sure that listening is something that people tend to do quite enough, or quite as well as they should. (Did you know that the word “listen” contains the same letters as the word “silent”?”) And it can be harder still, I would say, when they feel they know a bit about the topic being discussed – maybe even enough to be termed an expert.
Now expertise is crucial, don’t get me wrong. But how many well-funded development projects have come apart at the seams, simply because other people’s words fell on deaf ears.
The most common example is when development partners tell communities what (they think) they need, instead of listening to what it is that the community wants. The first lesson of development work is that there is no just substitute for a real sense of ownership. A community must want a program or a project badly enough to contribute their own money, resources and time.
Problems can also arise when we don’t listen to partners who have implemented projects and programs and delivered technical expertise before us. It doesn’t matter if they failed or if they met with success. Either way, they will have learned a great deal. Not heading lessons from the past only leads to mistakes being repeated yet again in the future, and potentially projects that do more harm than good. How many times have we seen this in international development?
I’d also say we don’t listen to women enough. They’re not just 50% of society, after all, they play a unique role in it. It’s women who tend to be responsible for raising the younger generation and ensuring that its members get vaccinated, go to school, and access other such vital services. Neglecting women’s perspectives and priorities is always a major mistake.
We also need to be all ears around government – and that don’t just mean embracing the Medium-Term Development Strategy III to understand PNG’s own priorities. It means working with or through government systems wherever possible. Standalone initiatives often see short-term progress, but results tend to dry up when support ends.
As Susan Cain, the author of the book Quiet, said, “we have two ears and one mouth, and we should use them proportionally.” That is a good lesson for life, and for international development.