How do voices on the ground change the business and development narrative?

Conversations around international aid and development are too often dominated by a few established, often Western figures. The problem with this is not that it is inaccurate-but that it misses the perspective of people whose lives will be affected by these discussions. The Aspen New Voices Fellowship was created with support by the Gates Foundation to bring experts from developing countries in agriculture, medicine, business and technology and other fields into the global development discussion.

African countries are undergoing exciting changes, and are host to innovative social entrepreneurship experiments and projects. Yet when we only listen to voices from outside of these countries, we miss important details. How do we get a broader picture of the trials and successes of business and development in these countries? We broaden the scope of who we are listening to.

1. In what way does the story being told about a country or business affect its trajectory?

2. What is the untold story about Aid vs. social entrepreneurship in African Countries?

3. What do voices on the ground add to the international business and development narrative?

Editor's Note:

To post comments you will need to sign in / sign up to Business Fights Poverty. A list of recent comments is shown in the right-hand side bar and will refresh every 5 minutes. To refresh more often, please click on the refresh icon in your browser.

The problem with outsiders telling the story is they miss the "real story" and instead what we end up with is what the outsiders imagine is going on.

The untold story is hard to get at and requires patience and know how, the sort of know how that is not taught at school.

I learned this first through the Villages in Action initiative Spending time with people who are at the so called final mile of aid taught me that even when aid doesn't get through enterprises thrive.

I also learned about some of the reasons why development policies and aid in particular may not be effective. One of those reasons is that these policies mix with local factors over which the policy makers have no control or may not be aware and as such it is not possible to take them account whilst designing development programmes. This is the reason why adding local voices to the conversation about international development is important.

In Masindi NW Uganda we learned that the locals had never heard of MDGs for instance but were aware that there was an increased drive to improve child immunisation but the nearest clinic was 1.5hr away and was often out of medicines. When some amongst the local women had made such a journey a few times with children on their back, they would give up. If the locals had been included in the designing ad implementation of the immunisation programme I am confident that the outcome would have been different

Stories draw attention and are easily heard when told by louder voices. Louder voice comes with money and power. New voices from Africa are often powerless, does not pull global attention, and not well-heard despite they tell the accurate story. It is the accurate story that can guide to development in an efficient and cost-effective way.

What comes first? Louder voice or development? There is no doubt that development can bring power thence louder voice and louder voice can bring development. However the powerless voice of Africans should be assisted by well established Western figures before it becomes powerful by its own.

I'm really looking forward to welcoming you all to this important discussion. All too often the development industry has failed to pay adequate attention to the voices of those on the ground. This discussion will explore the untold story.

Whenever I travel around Africa, I am struck by the difference in the way Africans talk about Africa and the way outsiders talk about Africa. Rather than a story dominated by aid and charity, it is one framed by enterprise, jobs, trade and opportunity.

To help us through this discussion, we are joined by a number of Aspen Institute New Voices Fellows from across Africa. You can learn more about them and the Fellowship programme by clicking here.

Can I start by asking people's general reflections on the topic, and in what way the story being told about a country or business affect its trajectory?

Hi Kas! Do you think the Western/Northern figures speaking about development have the same priorities as the African voices -- or are they different?

I work with The Ethical Volunteer and we are constantly surprised by the voices on the ground. In fact its all the more refreshing and inspiring when they say "We dont want aid", everyone on the ground, outside of politics, wants jobs, better trade conditions, the opportunity to improve their own lot! Here's a snippet of some of the comments -

Great to see this discussion

It is no secret that among the key challenges many African countries face is in balancing the real needs of their people while meeting the objectives of donors who in most cases have very different priorities. With donor countries providing 40 – 45% of health budgets in some countries like Tanzania, it is easy to see why most countries have abrogated their responsibilities and too heavily depend on donors programs that are often not designed to meet the unique cultural and social needs necessary to take into account in designing development programs of their populations.

However, when Africa taps on their visionary and transformational leaders to actively participate in the development of indigenous capacity and home grown polices informed by local knowledge, then we can design effective developmental policies and strategies for poverty alleviation in Africa.

One way to do this is by making a good use of social entrepreneurs who often have innovative solutions to what is the most pressing issue for instance in improving maternal and child health in Tanzania and sub-Saharan Africa at large. Taking an example of vaccine delivery to the most remote, hard to reach areas, vaccines which we know of many do need a well monitored, temperature controlled supply chain system, its hard to imagine that innovations for caring out such a delivery can be planned to be as effective as those that exist currently, engineered by the local natives, who know about how and where to pass during the bad road seasons where there are heavy rains and no tarmac roads, they know how to get the children vaccinated.

When there are services that need to be up taken by societies like using of mosquito nets to prevent malaria, the social entrepreneurs know how work the problems out; they can change the system, help spread the new system and solution while convincing the people to take up the new interventions. They have approaches that are usually different from the normal government or business models, they somehow know how to make things work in a better way. Because of the way the social entrepreneurs minds work, they are able to present ideas that can easily be accepted and implemented by many and they are committed to moving their field in the positive direction and change for the better.

Hence, once we realize the power that social entrepreneurship has in development in Africa, we can eventually do away with Aid and be able to come up with our own local solutions at a larger extent and push our development agenda forward.

Dialogue is huge. It isn't only about Western versus African perspectives -- dialogue across stakeholders creates opportunities for voices to be heard. It has allowed the voices of small and medium enterprise owners to be heard by government in Senegal:

Kassahun - have you noticed things changing for the better? From this week's blog about the rise of African journalism (, it sounds like Africa's voice is strengthening. But what about the "powerless" voice you refer to?

I understood what it really means to hear the voices of people on the ground when my brother came home with pictures from a volunteer trip he did. the photos showed stockpiles of medicines with directions in a far eastern language that noone on the ground could understand. These supplies were rendered useless.

We give what we think others need, but have no regard for how useful they are. Photos of teddy bears and bibles on trash heaps showed me that we must listen to local voices and give what people actually need, which is time and money.

Once on the field, priority is given for Africans for their own issue. Clearly Western figures have more priority in Western media as they can make the scenario more attractive and describe it in a "Western" way.

I would like to use and example of a country that is moving fast in improving its health indicators like Rwanda, where among the stories around this is that there is seriousness and commitment within the country's leadership and this positively affects its trajectory in the sense that once they receive encouraging results, they want to get even better results and it also translates to donors commitments since they too want to see best outcomes out of what they support.

It would be great to hear some country perspectives around the role of aid versus entrerpeneurship/social entrerpeneurship!

HI Mary -- that's an interesting point, and we all know how much good social entrepreneurs are doing on the ground. But what about interventions which don't "have a market"? Isn't there a danger in over-emphasizing the entrepreneurial side of this equation? And how about Rwanda -- it seems like they have managed to advocate pretty effectively for their own priorities in development work ...why do you think they've been successful when other governments/civ society organizations have not?

I believe the current media narrative regarding the upcoming elections in Mali is a perfect example: the narrative being developed is that the election is being foisted on us by our "colonial master" and that Malians are not ready to turn the page on the last two years... a period where the country almost ceased to exist. Concerns about Ramadan, rain, insecurity, and difficulty getting everyone their voting card on time are legitimate to different degrees but very few articles discuss the risks of keeping an unelected, unpopular "transitional" government in place longer.

In addition, the prevailing narrative epitomized by an article in today's Guardian paints Malians as simple bystanders, victims in the process. We are holding elections simply because we were told to so and so that aid can start flowing again. Yes, the French, the UN, and the US are pressuring for the return to something that resembles a constitutional, and elected president. Yes, there are serious problems with the logistics and the fact that hundreds of thousands of eligible votes won't get to vote. I'm disappointed that I won't be able to vote but that doesn't make any less of a citizen.

But in my conversations with people in Bamako who can, they are looking forward to it--many for the first time in their lives will be voting. And in conversations with Tuareg friends who have family members living in refugee camps, say they are eager for elections to occur so that a president--who the international community supports and that wasn't appointed by a junta--can begin the difficult process of peace and reconciliation and kickstarting economic recovery.

The frame has been set: If the election goes poorly and #%$ hits the fan, it will be "Papa Hollande's" fault. If they go well, well it will be thanks to the West for saving us from ourselves. Us Malians, we are just at the mercy of others...

Yes Kas.

There are many people on the ground in Africa who are doing incredibly brave and impactful work whose stories are barely captured by local media and certainly not by international media. Then they are stories of aid which are told by people with power and so therefore get captured and represented. If you go by what they media is saying, then you will imagine that there is not much going on with local people who are driving change. Then you go onto the ground and you see an entirely different situation. The mass media landscape has to change and thankfully social media is driving some of this change.

Giving people a voice empowers them and allows them the respect they deserve, a respect that can be denied to them by speaking on their behalf. Also, we enter these discussions with our own preconceived notions of life in the developing world and ideas of what is "right". If I asked any of my friends what they think of Aid, they would all reply that it is a good thing. A necessary thing. Aid is seen in the west as the only solution to the developing worlds problems. Perhaps the governance of charities is getting a bad rap, but aid in itself is rarely questioned. However, my encounters in the developing world tell a different story. Giving local people a voice may change attitudes to aid in the west and help to show people that there is no universal blanket solution.

While implementing a reproductive health program in the Nairobi slums, Jhpiego objective was to increase the number of women using family planning contraceptives. However, when we introduced this to the communities, they felt that their need was not family planning but the need to address issues related to sexual violence and rape. According to them the only reason they were getting unplanned pregnancies and HIV was that they had been raped by gangs in the slums. We had to change the whole program and start addressing issues of rape on a larger scale while addressing family planning. The program was well recieved by the community. Jhpiego was able to train service providers in trauma counselling, emergency contraceptives and post exposure prophilaxis, the police were trained in how to apprehend the suspects and we trained paralegals from the communities to offer support when rape occurs. This was what the community wanted and we learnt that we cannot go to the community with preconcieved ideas of what they need and the solutions. We must get to ask the community to participate in probelem identification and propose solutions to these challenges. It worked very well


What is powerless I would say is the apparent importance attached to various news pieces. We would assume that the most important news pieces get the most attention right? Well, right now for instance, the news about the new Prince of Cambridge is all over the news. So I guess that means that is very important news. But to whom? Not to me really. Or my mother or my friends fighting everyday to make Ghana and Africa better. We think our news is more important but who will it make BBC 7am news 3 days in a row?