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Q&A Open fireside chat: Talk to Loop's Journey as a systems' change tool

March 22, 2024
March 22, 2024

Last week, we had a conversation about the journey that led to the inception of Talk to Loop, exploring the motivations behind its creation, the remarkable milestones achieved over the past three years of implementation, the reasons and challenges behind the recent hibernation, and the potential for collective action to sustain our learning journey. It was a truly engaging space that brought a newfound energy, with over 170 people registered, 80 participants and others requesting the recording which can be found here. You can watch the recording here:

Before and during the chat, some valuable questions were raised, and here are our answers:

1. What are the risks when the system keeps us working in siloed or “old system” supporting ways (i.e. CHS individual feedback channels) – and how might we collectively seek to disrupt and overcome these? (obviously I believe that working in systems change approaches like Talk to Loop is a big part of the answer!)

The old siloed ways are expensive. We believe that new money is not needed once Loop is properly running. Loop will help organisations, especially small ones, more easily meet the lowest scoring CHS commitments.

But it requires a new collective way of thinking and engaging.

Risks of ‘the old system’ way of engaging include continued and increased survey fatigue and diminishing trust from communities to organisations, which leads to lower levels of accessibility. If we maintain the same funding and incentive structures which leads to fear of really openly listening and responding then the risk is also lower impact and increased costs. Not that Loop can solve all of this but it is one tool in a range of tools required to deliver a more people centred approach - by democratising feedback!

2. How can we get through the discomfort of working with perspectives that challenge our views/beliefs? This is so critical to realizing the kind of transformation the sector appears to be rhetorically committed to (I’m personally very keen to understand the push back/resistance you experienced – from a place of real curiosity – to understand why some are so threatened/worried about working with those different perspectives..)

We think it all boils down to funding and the need to protect the brand. This starts with communities saying what they think they want organisations to hear, organisations wanting to secure ongoing funding and up to donors wanting to have a good story to tell to their constituencies about the value of taxpayers money and how it is spent oversees. Who really wants to hear if things are not going well? The irony is that with a safe independent system like Loop, we can reduce whistleblowing and big exposure, by helping the right people get the right information and act on it appropriately, while protecting communities who report. We have experienced individuals being positive and supportive but when they put the organisational hat on its a different story. A lot of fear about who owns the data, authenticating beneficiaries, refusing to engage as they didn't ask us to collect information on their behalf. Some of the resistance can be overcome with improved targeted communications and time to be socialised. Some is about funding and the argument is that if we are exposed, funding will be cut and therefore we wont be able to help more people.

3. Why is one of the most brilliant ideas that has come from within the sector, grounded on everything we say we believe in (from listening to people to using technology), is going into hibernation? 

Thank you! We are sure there are many different answers to this question. And change is never smooth. We have definitely suffered from being expected to fit into project based funding. Because Loop is designed around what a person in crisis wants to say, we are cluster and organisation agnostic. This is difficult to fit neatly into project specific calls. The financial plumbing is not really set up to support community led, adaptive, collective and long term approaches... yet. Nor are there incentives to acknowledge and then address mistakes or possible harm done. Its a very competitive environment for funding and this cascades across all decision making.

4. What's the number one thing you would do differently given the benefit of hindsight

This is a big question and many team members have different thoughts on this. I, Alex, feel guilty for wasting funds that could have gone to feed families living on 2$ a day. We need to make sure the investment has an impact so, I feel like it has failed so far even though we have impacted many people individually.  Others in the team feel like even if we can't continue it has contributed to the discussion on accountability as a wake up call, which is needed. Should we have done less on the tech and invested more in communications and fundraising? We applied for 100s but only got funds through bilateral discussions. Should we have had a CEO who travelled more and was better in diplomacy and fundraising? Ideally the CEO would be someone from a Majority representative country. 

5. My question would be whether donors shared any feedback on why they were unable to commit to the type of institutional support needed to sustain Loop, given accountability to affected populations is a key part of all major donor agendas. Was there indication or 'evidence' of impact that they felt they did not yet have, or see, in what Loop was able to show? (Acknowledging that you tried to fund evaluations to generate rigorous evidence.) Or something else, perhaps push back from some of the actors you mentioned that were hostile to your work? 

We think that knowledge of a new approach, the specificalities of why that approach is different to other existing approaches like a call centre or chat bot or research survey takes time. We didn't have funds to sustain us for long enough to get that. Also, the ‘system’ likes consensus and tends to fund those with existing ‘power’ and influence/ credibility. As a small, independent actor we don't and won't ever have that. We tried through our governance and advisory boards. But to be disruptive or significantly different, you can't first get consensus.

On evidence, again we needed time. Its a chicken and egg dilemma. We found innovative funding and seed funding didn't enable this for us. Time to build the tech and start working was there but not to build trust and integrate it in a sustainable way. That takes a lot of time and money. We didn't hear back specifically why we didn't get the research grants or other applications.

6. Are there any other existing accountability tools in the humanitarian sector? How can we find and use the momentum in the debate around accountability?

Yes, there are many existing tools like Upinion, Ushaidi, Africa's Voices, Citizen Lab, Accountable Now, Integrity Action, the Harmonisation Reporting project, Ground Truth Solutions, etc. They work in different ways to address different aspects of accountability - Governments responsibility to deliver on construction projects, Election engagement, SEA reporting at the sector level. What we learnt though is that we still mark our own homework and maintain the decision making power. Those with funds decide who to ask, through what mechanism, when and about what. They control the data, its use and who gets to see it. Some are really exciting approaches, using technology to reach more people such as Upinion for example. Or putting skills in local volunteers hands to hold Government projects to account such as Integrity Action. There is a lot to do.

7. To what extent has Loop engaged with / looked at the TPM needs (and funding) as a possible avenue/area of added value, especially given the high call for TPM especially in high(er)-risk environments and taking into account the risk of fraud and other potential challenges in TPM

Yes we have a TPM specialist Richard on our Advisory Board. We have presented Loop to some larger TPM groups senior level and we have been involved in joint bids, none of which were successful. The TPM companies saw Loop as an added bow to their work to help with real time, anonymised reporting to avoid biases or fears of retribution as an offer following face to face discussions. We believe researchers and people delivering surveys could also use Loop for this purpose. In Somalia SDC is supporting Loop through their TPM partner and their data platform which we can link our open data to through an API so this is also of interest to donors.  Sadly we have not had time to grow this opportunity further and the funds for this are not sufficient to sustain Loop in a high risk complex context on its own but together with others it could do.

8. Another issue is that "traditional"  humanitarian thinking is that improved community participation in real budget-crunch decision-making is viewed as an ideal added extra, not actually a priority

Yes, we agree. We tend to have seen more interest from donors to use Loop to help with accountability and Safeguarding. Also we get strong interest from local CSOs who can maybe adjust more rapidly to the feedback that comes in. We have evidence of this affecting program and funding decisions in real time in very local development contexts. As you say, we don't think the humanitarian system is really prioritising feedback in the same way... yet. Loop can be used based on where each actor is at. Reactive or Proactive. If Loop is used initially with a framing of Safeguarding or Fraud detection and prevention and then grows from there to identify community priorities and changing needs, that is possible and impactful both for individuals and systems change.

9. Organisation' specific CFMs will continue to have an important function (and are now required by donors), but that doesn't cancel out the need and value for common platforms and open channels for unsolicited feedback like Talk to Loop

Yes, Talk to Loop has always been seen as complimentary. If nothing exists then Loop can substitute until one does exist. If the proposed solution is short term and will then be removed then maybe Loop is also a good option to maintain that connection with the community. And, as we have seen evidenced in these last few years, we have received very specific feedback that wouldn't or didn't get results through existing traditional mechanisms because the authors were from excluded groups, or feared retribution, or didn't have access or knowledge about the feedback channels that did exist etc.  

10. In regards to pushback - have you considered a LOOP-lite, as an addition not a replacement, where the comment is shared, but the agency is anonymised? We note the rhetoric going left, around inclusion, but the reality becoming more corporate.

There are a few ways to understand this comment. We are lo fi tech so trying to be accessible as much as possible on lo tech solutions, SMS, Voice, Facebook if people prefer that etc. On sensitive reports the organization is never mentioned. That's confidential and managed directly with relevant focal points. We have been thinking about different business models where you pay to have the organisational data anonymised and managed at a organizational level only but that then undermines the equitable transparent change we really value. The power shift happens, as do efficiencies on data, when the information is open and the chief of a village can see what his community has shared just as much as the INGO providing and designing the services. Maybe this is too much for where the sector is now but what will help us to get to that place of prioritising the community? Ideas very welcome.  

11. Champion agencies/platforms - for example Minar is engaged in new platforms in Nepal and Pakistan that bring together localised stakeholders to interface with internationals. 'Playing' local against international must be avoided, however how to find stakeholders vested in accountability, ie who are held to account by people once the circus has gone home

We really agree. Talk to Loop is contextualised in each situation and then owned by a steering group of national actors, and some others where the national actors think it is relevant and complimentary.  The idea of a collective, long term solution that is locally owned is for it to add value and be used as the context changes and evolves, through sudden onset crisis, elections, etc.  The more people know about it and how to use and promote it the more valuable the data and approach will be.

12. I wonder if there is a way to link LOOP to a global network of organisations such as Start Network? To see if there is a way to link what they are doing to create positive change in the humanitarian sector, with local, national and international agencies that are delivering programmes, and that might be interested in harnessing the innovation with LOOP

Yes, Christina has been on the Loop Advisory Board since the very beginning and we have been working to see how it can be integrated into different country networks if they feel it adds value to their work and pooled funds.  I believe that Loop will help to get more funds to pooled funds as it adds a sustainable additional arm of accountability and transparency, providing data and confidence to more donors to let go a little more. But that has not been evidenced or tested yet.  I hope we can get to that soon though, through START fund and others.

13. If there is a real desire to change the system, then perhaps worth considering finding a way to inform donors of the situation? Not quite sure right now what that would look like, but if donors are seen as the absolute power holders, that is preventing programme implementors from engaging with Loop, then the donors would be key as final end users

We think that is what we are starting to come to sadly. We initially thought it was important to be led by organisations who believe in and prioritise in their culture listening and adapting to community voices but that is not that easy to do in the current system and not very common it seems. I was nervous to try to put more power into the hands of those with funds as a power shifting tool but we have learnt that incentives matter and that tends to come from donors. We feel like there is a sought of pincer movement - from communities who use it and are asking for information and from donors who require it as a third pillar of their accountability approach - legal, financial and community voices. What we learnt which was unexpected is how Loop can also provide some trends analysis of how effective feedback and safeguarding reporting mechanism are, more than a tick box exercise of if they exist on paper or not.  This is really important and interesting for donors as well I would expect.

14. I'm so shocked by the threats Loop staff received.  If viable channels are not provided people are left with media as an option to flag their concerns/grievances....(if they can access), or taking action against the NGO.  Both worse options from the perspective of the NGO and donors.

We think some organisations see Loop as a potential whistleblower and are concerned about that data we have about them. We need time to be trusted that we will do and commit to our policies and commitments. In fact Loop can help to keep organisations safe from whistleblowing and media attention as the right people in an organisation will be more likely to hear about issues in advance and be able to do something early.  Give Directly is a prime example with their issue in the DRC which was derailed amongst their team. With Loop in place we could have picked that up and passed it to the right GD actor very easily and have other live examples where we have done that already.

15. I’m one of the co-founders of NeedsList and we also faced very similar challenges along the way. I would actually argue you need more than 1mn a year as you are not only focused on building the tech, you are going up against the status quo aid system that has trillions. One solution would be to look at a model where there’s a substantial investment made in multiple tech solutions that are complementary focused on localization.

We need to be linking up mechanisms with a design approach that gives greater agency to national and local actors to draw down when they want to. This will decrease competition and increase savings of short term project solutions. That's a long route to travel and I hope Loop will be around to contribute to the conversation. Thank you.

16. Off topic but someone mentioned earlier that some private actors have been using the technology and design for white label systems. Has that been through licensing or consultancy with Loop? If not then could it be?

As Loop is open we see some actors using the data points and approach but offering it as an additional service within a wider package of services such as a call centre etc.  I think this is not a bad thing to align and add value but if Loop becomes only that then we loose the transformative potential of shifting power.

We have also got a company registered and ready to develop the service for the private sector to help fulfill ESG commitment such as reporting of trafficking, modern slavery, bonded labour, factory pollution in local communities etc. However we needed to focus and not spread ourselves too thinly in the short term. This is still a possibility though if we can get impact investment funds or private investment and a specialist from the sector to work with Loop to use Loop in this field as well. Let us know if you would like to discuss this further.

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