When Getting Answers Isn’t Easy

What is the most frustrating part of doing process documentation? Let me count the ways! When a project/programme will conclude in another 15-30 days and the organisation realises they need ‘good’ process documentation done ASAP. When most of those closely involved in the action have left (and some can’t be contacted for various reasons) and there is a new team struggling to keep pace. When factors beyond your control jeopardise the fieldwork schedule. When an organisation talks proudly of the community based structures they have established and you can find little evidence of it on the ground. I can write many more. But definitely in the top ten for me – when participants say very little!

Of course, people take time to open up. Some are naturally more reticent than others. Usually, patience and small talk prove invaluable. But then, the silence may also mirror the lack of communication and engagement experienced by them. This is particularly true for marginalised groups – often our key participants (I don’t really like the word beneficiary) in development initiatives. In many ways, silence has been their friend. It has kept them out of trouble with the powers to be as they struggle to remain afloat. So, they are wary of speaking up before an outsider.

There are also multiple layers of vulnerabilities, insecurities and restrictions involved. Here’s an example. (1) A woman with little or no education and limited contact with the ‘outside’ world (these factors probably affect her confidence more when someone around her keeps reminding her of it). (2) A tribal woman uncomfortable in speaking the language spoken by the more populous local group and the documentation personnel. (4) A poor, tribal woman who is the main breadwinner and this work is uncertain and dependant on others. It is unreasonable to expect that she will, on demand, list benefits/positive changes experienced as a result of involvement in a project/programme.

One of my biggest learnings has been that everything she says, everything she hints at and everything she doesn’t say is equally significant. (And yes, double check whether the translator is adding his/her words and meaning to what is being said!)

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