I’m becoming a big fan of webinars. I can slump in front of the computer at home, slurping a coffee, give a presentation on the book (Open Access helps – no need to try and get people to buy copies, just download the pdf after the session), then sit back and listen to the ensuing conversation. On Wednesday it was 50 or so World Vision staff across the world, discussing ‘Transformational Development’ on a very user-friendly Webex platform. Some impressions:
It’s pretty disconcerting for a lifelong atheist like me to start a webinar by listening to a prayer, but actually I found it quite calming – an aid to reflection. Equally striking were the references for the need to stop and listen (to God; to poor people), rather than let ourselves be consumed by the reflex busy-ness of activism, which stops us listening to anyone.
Webex allows funky instant polls – asked after my 20m pitch to vote on whether WV inclines in its work more towards the cake (linear programming) or the Afghan map (systems thinking), participants came down 3:1 for the cake. Top quote ‘cakes are just theories – we need to adapt them as we go’.
The panel (WV staff from Burundi, Zambia and Cambodia) discussed what all this means on the ground. A few impressions:
WV is deeply embedded in communities, with a commitment to listening to their voices and opinions. In Cambodia they have introduced a ‘community reflection process’ – an ‘annual pause button’, whereby communities stand back and reflect on their progress and the contribution of government and aid partners (not just WV). They write it up in their own language (not as obvious as it seems), and then share it with neighbouring communities (often triggering a discussion on shared priorities) as well as government and NGOs.
I was impressed, but also a bit sceptical – how do you shift power and incentives to make sure that the results of such reflections are taken seriously by INGO staff? How do you genuinely ‘hand over the stick’? It also got me thinking about Oxfam’s model, which is based on working through local partner organizations, often NGOs, rather than much direct contact with communities. The downside is that we are more easily insulated from the
messiness of reality (and so able to escape into the relatively ordered, linear world of projects and partnerships), whereas WV can’t help but be aware of the complex, unpredictable nature of reality. The upside is that working via partners hopefully dilutes the power imbalance created by the funding relationship. Our partners are embedded in real communities, and perhaps better able to keep us at arm’s length, when we start trying to impose the wrong ideas or solutions.
On the ground process increasingly involves WV engaging with the state at multiple levels, and non state actors such as traditional leaders – WV is learning to ‘dance with the system’. The trouble with dancing with the system is that it can produce some awkward dance partners/moves. In Zimbabwe, it’s ended up with parents agreeing to pay for school textbooks because their engagement with the Ministry of Education made it clear that the state has no budget for it. How does that fit with potential organizational red lines – a commitment to equity or right to education? In Burundi, communities raised alcoholism and witchcraft as their two biggest concerns but ‘we don’t have a project for that’.
The conversation also highlighted something which emerged in my recent paper on donor theories of change in fragile states – the need to separate out a Theory of Action (by change agents) from a Theory of (endogenous) Change. On a good day, INGOs consult deeply and listen to communities about their priorities and the problems they face. But what happens next? I fear that activists are either too busy to lift their heads up and see what is happening all around them, or (worse) reserve for themselves the role of acting to address those problems. That means that the discussion becomes all about ‘what can we do’, rather than ‘how is the system changing/likely to change without us?’ By treating the community/village/sector as an essentially static set of players and problems on which change agents act, we ignore the actual dynamics of change. That means that our own interventions are less likely to fit with those dynamics and so less likely to have impact.
At the end of the seminar, WV collected the comments, identified common themes and got the participants to rank them in order of importance. Here’s the winning candidates for things that WV should ‘Continue’, ‘Stop’ and ‘Start’
- Implementing based on community input and participation
- Taking time to understand power dynamics and build relationships
- Rushing community processes to tick boxes
- Applying project models without adequate adaptation
- Gather the evidence – hear the voice of the poor and vulnerable
- More intentional iterative learning and adaptation
Fascinating and productive. More webinars please!