Learning by un-doing: the magic of immersion

Varja Lipovsek of Twaweza, one of my favourite accountability NGOs, reflects on a recent staff immersion in a Ugandan village. It’s a bit too long, but just too nicely written to cut – sorry!

Twaweza 01Take a group of people that are used to talking about development while sitting in offices behind computers, going to meetings at ministries, writing reports and worrying about indicators, and give each some mosquito repellent, a sleeping bag, and directions to a household deep in rural East Africa.

Importantly, you do not arm them with any questionnaires, tools, focus group discussion guides or similar baggage. The instructions you give them mostly consist of: hang out, observe, participate, converse, be. In short, do not investigate; learn.

This is what 52 of us did last month; we spread across the Soroti, Kumi and Serere districts of Eastern Uganda, and as we were departing the sanctum of the low-key hotel where we gathered, the anxiety on some colleague’s faces was unmistakable.

My “immersion buddy” and I bumped along first on a boda-boda (a motorbike taxi), then for a couple of hours in a local “taxi” (4 passengers on back seat of a small car, plus a couple of chickens underfoot, 3 in the front seat, plus the driver, baskets tied to the roof) to a village deep in Serere. So deep that a few kilometers further on there were a few fishing hamlets and then the road simply ended on the shores of a vast lake.

We had left paved roads, advertising, health centers, electricity and the din of televisions and local restaurants far behind… to be replaced by fields, churches in half-finished buildings, lots of wattle and straw huts, here and there modest brick houses, more fields, more churches… And police posts with policemen in crisp white uniforms, stark against the muddy red earth, fanning their sweaty brows. And little trade centers – clusters of small businesses which always include one or two fix-it-all places with tools and bicycle pumps; a few shops stocked with soap, plastic flip flops, salt, coca-cola; neat piles of tomatoes, oranges, potatoes arranged on mats ready for sale; a number of open-air “pubs” serving two kinds of local brew; and scores of people coming and going, buying, selling, chatting, laughing, and looking at us.

Everyone knows everyone here, and we don’t know anyone. But not for long: soon we find the house of our hosts, the farmer, orange-grower, bore-hole fixer, church elder, civic educator, local entrepreneur Augustin and his wife Merab and their five children. Here is where we will spend the next four days, which are going to be rich in conversation with Augustin, richer in hand-gestures and shy smiles with Merab, and full of laughing and kicking around a ball with the children.

We will also walk and boda-boda all around the parish and meet the local councilors as well as the elected Twaweza 02chairmen and chairwomen; we will visit schools and talk with teachers and head teachers and listen to their complaints and aspirations; we will happen upon a large meeting under the proverbial tree in a neighboring village and witness robust discussion and collective decision-making in action; we will avoid the clusters of strong, healthy, idle young men already drunk at 11am; we will chat with the pastor, with the taciturn intelligence officer, with the jovial policeman cuddling a baby, with the fishermen hauling glistening silver Nile perch to the weighing station, with the women balancing yellow jerry cans full of water from the village pump…

Conversations and encounters similar to ours are taking place all over the three districts where our colleagues have ventured. After four days, we all gather back in the town of Soroti: the anxious faces have turned into delighted ones, parting gifts of fresh mangoes and oranges given by the host families spill out of backpacks (and yes, even a few chickens!), there is a lot of laughter and a nearly unstoppable flow of impressions and anecdotes. Over the next day we take time to share stories, to reflect on our individual experiences and to weave them into a loose tapestry of insights for our organization as a whole.

As an organization, Twaweza focuses on the domains of education and open government. Starting with January this year, we have adopted a new strategy and a revised theory of change. We are civil society; we have our ear to the ground; we are clever. We call ourselves a learning organization. Sometimes, this can sound like a gimmick, but when we do immersion, we are true to that concept. By far the most learning is done on an individual level – the out-of-comfort-zone experience, the closeness and shared experience build with complete strangers, the questioning of one’s own assumptions and norms. But all these experiences would remain just individualized stories if we did not look at them through the lens of our organizational mandate, detecting patterns, reflecting on how we theorize and what we implement. This is the magic of immersion.

We have done this for several years now and each time we focus on a different theme. This year we wanted to explore a core concept in our new strategy, where we hypothesize that transformative change (in education and governance) occurs when there is a constructive overlap and interaction between active citizens and responsive authorities. That magic space called “public agency”: does it exist? And if it does, how big is it, what shape does it take, who is in it, how does it function?

This may sound elementary, but in our experience, the lived reality of most East Africans is that either citizens themselves get things done, or they won’t happen. The government exists mostly in capitals and among the elite, and while some of its long arms do reach deep into the countryside, it’s not focused on service delivery, it’s not focused on people, and it mostly doesn’t work for the public good. It has its own purposes and it’s only a few lucky individuals that can become part of it and benefit from it through coveted government jobs. So the notion of these two parallel worlds coming together over a joint purpose (e.g., these are our children; how do we give them a good education?) seems impossibly utopian. And yet we know, from other countries and contexts that sustainable development (if I dare use these words) is premised on such a joint social contract.

So what did we learn this year? The synthesized, findings are in this report, but here are some of the more visceral

We observed a general distrust between the government education sector and citizens, and an increased voting with their feet by rural, poor parents who take children out of the government system and enroll them in rural, poor private schools.

On the other hand, this private education system, while trusted by parents to do a good job, is in our observations often failing just as miserably as the public one – and charging high fees to boot.

Parents themselves either do not know, are unable to, or simply do not manage to enhance the learning of their children in other ways, such as engaging with teachers, checking on progress, or monitoring schoolwork at home.

We found that speaking about “citizens” is a little like speaking about “Africans” – a gross overgeneralization, wildly inaccurate and not helpful in guiding our work. On the other hand, in every place there are those individuals who are outgoing and active, and they often hold a variety of titles and roles (my favorite this year: chairman of the borehole, not to be confused with the borehole secretary). These are the people who are identified, time and again, by both international and local NGOs, by churches, and sometimes even by government as “community leaders”; they are brought to workshops, given pamphlets and allowances; they tick the box of grassroots implementation.

In essence, this is local elite capture. But the question is, is this a bad thing – and what is the balance of the local elite working in favor of the local public good, and how do we know when it becomes too exclusive, self-promoting? To tell you the truth, we don’t know.

In this haziness, it is often easier to think about a group of professionals that is united in a specific and identifiable function, such as teachers, or local councilors. At least the job descriptions are clear. But real life is messy and spills out of boxes: take the case of the engaged local young man who set up a private school in his village, which was, for the first time ever in that parish, able to pass 7th grade pupils on the national exam. This school’s director personally helps to coach children around exam time and is widely respected in his community. It turns out, though, that he is also a government teacher in another school quite some kilometers away; the kind of school where classes are overcrowded, teachers are few, and even many of them are routinely absent…

For local government authorities, a good illustration is what a local councilman (appointed, not elected) told us on the topic of accountability. He brought up the term, I asked what he meant by it. “Accountability means that citizens have to know about paying taxes; you would be surprised to know how few of our people pay taxes” he explained. My host nodded vigorously. It seems the people are accountable to the state, rather than the other way around.

Moreover, some of the most powerful authorities exist outside these formal sectors – the most prominent and omnipresent ones were all stripes of religious leaders, clearly wielding influence over decisions taken in schools, in local councils and village meetings. Ignoring them is like trying to influence the mayor of the Vatican while ignoring the Pope.

And there was much more – about unemployment and the numerous young men with college degrees who stumble drunk down dusty village streets at noontime, about gender roles and how clearly boys outnumber the girls in higher school grades, about the deep dislike many people expressed towards the ruling party, and yet in the same breath also the reluctance to endorse any change – if for no other reason, then for the “security” of the country. We struggled hard in the makeshift meeting room of our hotel in Soroti to make sense of these insights and impressions, to organize them into themes, tie the themes to our work.

I am a fan of immersion. But I have to say that as an organization, we did not emerge with sparkling new insights which will now illuminate and guide our work in new directions. We have done immersions in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda for about six years; each time the individual stories are different, but the overarching insights stay largely the same.

Not surprising, actually: lived reality in villages across East Africa has changed little in this time (mobile phones and solar lights notwithstanding). We know that significant, lasting change (if not done in the artificial vacuum of a pilot) takes a long time; so why keep looking for it every year? I struggled with this question on the 11-hour bus ride back to the capital. If this is such a core part of Twaweza being a learning entity, and yet we are learning little of direct impact to the organization, why do it?

Twaweza 03Here is my hunch. I think the most significant benefit is not in finding answers, but in asking questions, in the un-doing of old patterns, held truths, stale wisdoms. In having a different reference point, a different perspective. In being an organization in which everyone, from the executive director to the accountant to the manager will have participated equally, and will have a new basket of insights and reflections to draw from.

Many of the biggest lessons are personal, some may translate to our work, but it’s the simmering of deeply personal reflections and joint experiences, hard to encapsulate in a neat metric, which adds the most value to organizational thinking. A little like the local brew, ajon, which is prepared in a clay pot, and around which people – friends, strangers – sit, dipping long straws into it and sipping, conversing, laughing. An old friend of mine used to talk about the ferment of ideas; when it comes to immersion, I think he was onto something.

See also previous posts on Twaweza’s impressive approach to evaluation and Robert Chambers on immersion.

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8 Responses to “Learning by un-doing: the magic of immersion”
  1. Craig Valters

    Thanks for a reflective post, I really enjoyed it. Made me think of the Reality Check method I’ve been discussing with colleagues recently.


    Ultimately the more everyone in the development industry gets out of air-conditioned offices and into the real world, the better. It can have the useful knock on effect of making us ditch (or at least rethink) unhelpful and alienating terminology that sounds great in London, but silly in a village in East Africa. More importantly it can give a sense of what really matters to people at that level.

    This also reminded me of Duncan’s recent point about how some things become ‘development issues’ and some don’t. In many places I’ve been alcoholism is a major problem, but it just doesn’t get coverage – almost seems accepted as a part of life. Of course this is not just an issue for ‘developing countries’, but then nor are many things we imply are…

    • Varja

      Thanks Craig, and interesting link to RCA — immersion as evaluation; I enjoyed reading about it. For Twaweza, we have always maintained that immersion was not the time to monitor or evaluate anything. On the other hand, we have also used qualitative deep-dives as one of the approaches in a larger evaluation or study. I really am a big proponent of mixed method evaluations — i.e., asking a range of different questions, getting answers in different ways, and then seeing what the puzzle adds up to.

    • Varja

      Thanks P Baker, I’ve not thought about being head of DFID! But if I were, I would spend time with Owen Barder and colleagues and take seriously the thinking about how international aid has to change (particularly beyond financial flows) if it is to have any chance of achieving what it purports to achieve (SGDs, etc.). And the second thing I would do is institute immersion-type exercises for DIFD staff, particularly for those up the ladder. It matters.

  2. So, I moderated the opening panel of the Africa Open Data Conference in Dar es Salaam this past week. We waxed a lyrical about the amazing tech that is pregnant with possibilities of holding pubic authorities accountable by scraping, crunching and sowing terabytes of data, information and insight to the previously data-, information- and insight-starved citizens. And then I remembered my eye-opening tour of Akokor village during this immersion, and the sub-county office where a) the amount of money received from central government for the six or seven primary schools was on prominent display in a slightly tattered notice board (physical data portal?!); b) data about the number of visits by pregnant and nursing mothers to the sub-county clinic were glued to every available piece of empty wall real estate in the senior nurse’s office (a physical web page?) , and c) the leaking roof in the medical stores and in the birthing room were clearly visible to all who ventured therein, but it remained unrepaired despite numerous entreaties by the clinic’s medical staff to their superiors. I did observe something – my immersion host, pastor William Okurut, was taking copious notes during our clinic visit. He vowed to follow up the leaky roof issue. An affable, non-threatening, religious and affectionate man (I witnessed his affection to his young son, ever-smiling wife and even younger grandson Willy), he seemed highly-respected in the village and sub-county. I think he will, and I think it will make a difference.

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