I used to visit a children’s home as a student social worker along with another batch mate. Two brothers caught our eye. The elder one was reserved, but with a heart warming smile. He was also fiercely protective of his younger and definitely more mischievous brother. The older, let’s call him Michael, was in Class VI. The younger (say – David) was in Class IV. It was only when we saw their case files that we realised the horrors that they had dealt with. They had seen their father kill their mother in a drunken fit. The two had escaped to a big city and found work at a tea stall. They were harassed by the owner. Sexual abuse was also suspected.
They had been in the home for a couple of years when we met them. By then, they had settled into a routine. Then, we found Michael behaving a little differently. He became more reserved, more moody. Was it just adolescence or something else? We were told to talk to him.
Gradually, he opened up. He had been rescued by a priest. This Father was an important role model for him. In fact, he wanted to grow up and become a Father himself. So what was the problem, we asked. Well, he liked a girl who was in Class V. He wanted to speak to her, be friends with her. It could even lead to something serious, he thought. But then, weren’t priests supposed to stay bachelors? So, if he started talking to her, could he, even then, become a priest later? We assured him that there was nothing wrong in talking to the girl, in being friends with her. He did not have to take a decision about priesthood right now. That could, and should, wait. He should see how he feels and what he wants when he is in Class X. That will help him take a decision. That shy, heart warming smile was back and we were grinning back at him.
Now, that’s a question that stumps most people. Some will just start rambling and you are expected to cull out what you want. Some, thankfully, are more clued in and tell you exactly what you wanted to hear.
I have usually found that it is helpful to guide the conversation by mentioning various components of the project/programme and then asking what worked and what didn’t. What were the facilitating and inhibiting/restraining factors? Were there any developments (village – national level) that affected work and how did they deal with it? How would they rate the involvement of the key participants and other stakeholders? If they were given a choice, what would they do differently? What were the consequences/effects ranging from personal to other levels?
In fact, I think that there is a lot of value in consolidating such queries into a check list. This check list can be used periodically at team meetings to generate learnings. The responses can guide subsequent planning. This would help organisational knowledge building. And yes, we could put the answers in the donor reports as well!
Different people understand documentation differently. But there seems to be a consensus on the basic expectations from a person designated for the documentation role – writing minutes and donor reports. Of course, I have come across organisations that have a fuller understanding of the scope and purpose of the documentation role. But they are in a minority.
Before I go any further, let me say that I have nothing against writing minutes and donor reports. We must record our meetings. That is common sense. And, of course, we have to write reports for donors. It will also help ensure that we continue to have donors! But the problem is that the documentation person is forced to write minutes for every meeting that he (or more often she) attends. Sometimes, he/she is asked to come to a meeting only because we need someone to write the minutes. We seem to believe, rather conveniently, that only the documentation person can write minutes!
And when he/she is not writing minutes, he/she should definitely be writing donor reports. It doesn’t matter if you get the data at the last minute. Sometimes, it won’t even add up. The documentation person is supposed to have magical powers of making everything come together in a coherent whole. And yes, also do some creative writing and throw in some learnings and challenges for good measure!
But there is so much more that a documentation person can do. He/she should really be helping to develop a documentation plan for the project/programme and then follow that. Develop a list of possible documentation outputs (yes, donor reports can be seen as an important part of that list!). Ensure that he/she and others in the team use standardised formats to collect information for case studies, events etc. Write all kinds of stuff. Publish some.
Documentation can, and should be, interesting and fun. That is why some of us choose to do this job in the first place. Let us hope the powers that be also realise this truth as well!
I ask questions. A lot of them. I have to as I need the answers to trace project/programme histories and distil learnings and challenges. But if there is one question that is usually met with uncomfortable silence …this is it!
Suddenly, people who were happily sharing examples of success fall silent. Some fidget. Some look elsewhere. Some keep looking at you and smiling. I usually have to start talking at this stage. ‘You couldn’t have possibly succeeded on all counts. There must have been some challenging aspects, aspects where you could not make much headway despite your best efforts.’ People know what I am talking about. If there are different levels of staffs in the room, then the ones lower on the hierarchy look expectedly at their seniors. It is easy to understand that look – that look which says ‘Shall we tell her?’
Sometimes, I start getting answers at this stage. If I have managed to win some goodwill and trust, that makes it easier. If not, I move to argument two. ‘You know our donors and others have also worked in this sector. They know it is not possible for everything to go perfectly. In fact, it is much better to highlight our own failures and show that we have learnt from them. That makes our report authentic, more balanced and interesting.’ Then the conversation picks up.
Somehow, we feel that we cannot show that we have failed. It means that we did not do our job. It will hurt organisational credibility… So, many staffs and organisations just want to gloss over any inconsistencies, anything that they think will show them in bad light. But that is part of the story too. A very important part.
So, what have I learnt? Sometimes, it is easier to first talk about areas of improvement and then determine which aspects were an absolute no show and to ALWAYS focus the conversation on learnings. Interestingly, a friend once commented – You development people don’t really fail, do you? Even if a project fails, you will say that we learnt it couldn’t be done like that!!!
I plan to blog on my experiences as I meet diverse individuals and organisations through assignments on documentation and knowledge sharing for the development sector in India. Hopefully, this blog will also grow as a space for reflection on development interventions themselves and how we choose to capture them. So, here’s to journeys and wherever they may take us!