The Ten Year Itch

I have had the amazing fortune of undertaking process documentation of multiple initiatives spanning 10 years. I have even done this for initiatives that covered 20 years and are still continuing. Most of these were primarily focused on child protection while a few centred on education. The two 20 year old initiatives were particularly unique since these also marked the journey from birth to adulthood (in a way!) of an organisation and a division of an organisation respectively. Nonetheless, each of these initiatives allowed me to engage with and reflect on the complex, organic and often unexpected trajectories of development interventions.

Typically, all of these initiatives began with the passionate commitment of some people. These people – and they were located across implementing organisations, participants (community members) and donors – recognised the relevance and value of what was being considered. It resonated with them for various reasons. They came on board and backed the idea. This idea would grow into a concept note and then a proposal and then a project. Or sometimes not. It might have just taken roots and begun to grow while these tools of development interventions came in later.

In any case, a core group of enthusiasts planned and implemented actions. Each frustration and thwarted effort was keenly felt and met with redoubled efforts. Each positive milestone brought a sense of solidarity and shared joy. This initial phase of intense engagement would then give way to the next one.

The teams involved could now  bank on some years of experience and insights. The project proposals gradually started becoming more refined and the indicators more sharply defined. The work may have also expanded organically in terms of themes and areas. Meanwhile, the organisations would have grown into larger entities with a more substantive array of projects and programmes (and with related worries of covering salaries and administrative costs!) The connections to this initiative, even when considered pioneering, might  have begun to grow loose. The participants – whether in the communities or other stakeholders – would have also gradually become aware of some sense of detachment or even distance with the implementing organisation. The staff at the ground level, of course, would have to continue their work. (And the new staff would often be told by participants that the previous set were better!) This is not to say that the initiative would have lost its relevance and effect. Even with every twist and turn, countless lives would have been touched in myriad ways. But somewhere, that organic sense of attachment and ownership may have begun to dim.

And then, at some point, the top management might experience a desire to look back. It could be to celebrate that milestone of 10 or 20 years. It could be the need to document this unique journey for organisational memory and also to inform the next stage of planning. It could be, and this often a key reason, an interest to consolidate the work and showcase it as a replicable model. And then suddenly, we are all back to pouring our time and energies on to this initiative.

I am not saying that all long terms initiatives fit this template. But many do. Also, maintaining growth of organisations and balancing reflective attention on multiple initiatives is a very real and undisputable challenge. There are a host of other internal and external factors as well that cast an influence. Changing priorities, often linked to donor requirements, do not always help either, especially if we do not plan to see how the gains can be deepened and continued. For me, it is most problematic when we gradually begin to lose sight of the people and children that we work for and with. The rights based approach and participation and sustainable development become words that are not lived fully.

At the same time, there is much that evokes hope. Long term initiatives provide unique opportunities to establish partnerships and engage in journeys of mutual growth. These ties, even when they grow weak with time for some, are still something else. The recollections of the past and reflections on the present might be tinged with frustrations. Yet, they still do strengthen that collective history of initiative and, more fundamentally, that common foundation of hopes and aspirations. For me, it is always humbling to be privy to such moments.

Moreover, the incremental effects add up to bigger and more significant changes. These become very visible and evocative acknowledgements of the fact that change, especially when dealing with deeply entrenched and complex issues, cannot happen overnight. It requires successful strategizing as well as modifications and some degree of trial and errors. And it is ok to fail too. It is all a part of the journey (and all parts that must be documented too).



Rewriting the Script

A poor programme participant was surviving against great odds. The programme team established contact with him/her, built rapport and motivated him/her to participate in the activities. The person was initially ‘resistant’. But then, the project team’s efforts proved successful. The person gradually began to participate and derive benefits. He/she became a strong supporter of the programme. His/her life changed substantially. He/she recognised the contribution of the programme in facilitating these significant transformations in his/her life.

So, this is the typical template of a ‘success story’ or ‘testimonial of change/impact’. The considerably rich and versatile case study method is often co-opted to build this very restrictive narrative. There is, of course, nothing wrong in wishing to record and present the positive changes influenced through a programme. On a more positive note, there has been an increasing interest in reflecting upon the programme inputs as well as the experience of the person/s who engaged with it. But there is SO MUCH MORE that needs to be done to make these narratives more real, grounded, ethical and resonant.

Not a label
The programme participant chosen as the ‘subject’ may have had a difficult life. But  he/she was a vibrant, complex, growing sum total of knowledge, experiences, skills and resources (in whatever shape or form) navigating life before we were even aware of his/her existence. He /she cannot be reduced only to labels that characterise him/her through deprivation. Any change that we are able to document and present is because he/she chose to engage with the programme. So, we should explore and highlight the nature of this engagement, factors which shaped it, evolving effects, and the continuing dynamic between these aspects. A representation that robs a person of his/her dignity and agency discredits both the programme and the participants.

Complexity and differences are not our enemy
While we all understand that change is rarely a linear and direct process, our success story templates fall consistently in this trap! Our narratives can be more nuanced by highlighting the actors, facilitating factors and constraints, circumstances and other elements and the interplay between them. We could attempt to identify the relative weights that these carried in influencing the change. And it is ok if the person has certain opinions and experiences that detract from the expected success story template/script. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing!Why are we so wary of reflecting differences?

What is success?
This is a more fundamental aspect. Are we willing to revisit our criteria of success? How do the programme participants define success in their own lives and in terms of the programme’s scope of work? Has the second helped with the first? How do these conceptions of success match with the programme’s envisaged outcomes? A more in-depth exploration can provide richer and varied dimensions of takeaways and successes than imagined. Such an exploration can also reveal other aspects that, somehow, escaped attention and needed programmatic emphasis. Sometimes, when we see what we want to see – we don’t go beyond that!

Ultimately, we are holding up a person’s lived experiences to external view. That is a huge responsibility, even when we change the names (and adhere to other ethical norms).

If that person was me, is this how I would have wanted myself to be represented?

How Informed is Informed Consent?

All of us who document and research are familiar with the notion of informed consent. Together with confidentiality and Do No Harm, it forms this trifecta of inviolable principles to guide our practice.  But I am not sure if those who agree always fully understand the implications of that ‘yes’. More importantly, I don’t know if that ‘yes’ comes from a sense of agency and choice.

Very often, we seek responses from people who have been a part of our projects as direct recipients of services or inputs in some form. I detest the term beneficiaries. But if, at some level, we have placed them in that category (or also allowed them to think like that), then they may feel obligated to participate. The ‘yes’ may then actually mean – ‘Sure. I will tell you what you want because I want to continue to be a part of this.’ Have we ever said to someone – You can choose not to be a part of this process at all. This will not have any impact on how we engage with you and your subsequent access to the project/programme?

Also, our dialogue with participants can be intrusive.  They may have consented in the beginning. But they probably did not know that the conversation would get into the realm of the deeply personal. Having said yes initially, they may feel unsure about backing out in between.

 Sometimes, people also say things as part of a conversation. Buried feelings and emotions may surface. They may remark about certain people or structures/systems in ways that they would not otherwise. Even if they have given consent, they may not fully realise the implications of having those words written and ascribed to them. Moreover, do we share that this conversation will shape a narrative that may be go beyond the immediate purpose and be recycled across outputs and channels?  

It is, undoubtedly, a great privilege to be welcomed into someone’s house and be given that time. In fact, I am often overwhelmed by the hospitality and the openness with which people share. It is, then, my responsibility to capture what is spoken, and left unspoken, in a manner that is dignified  and authentic as far as possible. It is also my responsibility to unpack this notion of informed consent, to check back with them even at the cost of losing out on those quotable quotes.

Besides, sometimes, knowing is enough. Everything does not need to be written explicitly for (donor and public) consumption.

We have to get better at this. I am definitely going to try.

Problematising Success

My work in process documentation often involves listening to multiple versions of the same events.  What people say, what strikes them, how they say it and even what they leave out – each of these strands is important and tells its own story. And I have learnt to accept that I hear and understand through the prism of my own lived experiences. That adds another dimension! Linking cause and effect is not always easy. In fact, determining which actor and which action/s led to a ‘success’ is rarely a straightforward affair.

Recently, I spoke to several people who played a part in preventing (or rather postponing) a child marriage. There was the school principal who spoke to the girl’s father. There was the father who stated that he had decided to act on his own (He did not mention the principal till it was explicitly brought up. Even then, he stressed that he had acted on his own accord). And then there was the seventeen year old girl. She had gone willingly with the man who had expressed interest in her. This was an accepted custom in her community. She now agreed that child marriage was not a good idea. She seemed more worried about the prospect of her parents being in jail rather than the adverse health consequences of child marriages, early pregnancies and the rest that followed. So, who and what specifically had helped prevent the child marriage? I was unsure.

I wasn’t even sure if this could be counted as a ‘success story’.  Since the girl had come back, life had not been easy. She became irregular in school and finally dropped out. She hadn’t been sure about how the others in the school would react. She, anyways, did not have many friends in school. Meanwhile, a dearly loved niece fell into a pond while playing. The child, barely three years old, drowned and died. As the mother recounted this, the girl sat with her head lowered. She wiped tears that came streaming down her face. She looked up and then she looked away. We all fell silent. That sense of loss and grief filled up all the spaces in that courtyard where we all sat under the fading daylight.

Given a chance would the girl choose to not wait for a year and elope to marry? Possibly. It would take her away from her present that seemed overwhelming and unhappy and restrictive (I got the feeling that the father was a dominant figure who did not take dissent well.)

And I couldn’t frame this as a success story.  

The C Word

I am not talking about Complicit which has raced ahead of other worthies to become the Word of the Year (as declared by and, yes, there is a Trump connection).
I am talking about Complicated. So much these days is termed complicated. Relationship status. Actual income and expenditure levels. Giving back to society. Climate change. Maybe we have grown used to parking aspects that overwhelm us under that label. Maybe, some of these and many other things around us are complex and not necessarily complicated. Now, that sounds complicated too, right?
A recent conversation with colleagues brought up this conundrum. And it reminded me of similar conversations in the past. Instead of focusing on a specific number of desired changes that can be achieved through feasible actions, we often end up with these unwieldly, all encompassing, ‘we are going to die working and still not achieve’ type of project proposals and log frames. We weigh ourselves down with too many indicators and an even longer list of activities that don’t even add up. I too have been guilty of contributing to such spirit sapping traps in the past!
Of course, we are often grappling with issues that are complex and require multiple pathways of inputs and actions. So, our responses need to be complex. But they do not need to be unnecessarily complicated. Maybe, we need to make a rule for ourselves – Thou shalt not complicate. In fact, that’s a pretty good rule for life too. I bet following that rule will be complex! :)

Keeping the Faith

Our work can be soul sapping. Values appear to be commonly espoused but rarely lived.  A senior once told me, in jest, “Participatory decision making is when others participate and I decide!” Unfortunately, that is often the reality. Our battles seem unending.  The small gains made may evaporate before our eyes. So, yes, keeping the faith in what we do is challenging.

But, nonetheless, it is essential. Without belief in our collective potential of making a difference, development interventions would really mean nothing. Change nothing. So, what can we do to keep that flickering flame of hope and faith alive? Here’s what works for me.

Accepting that there will always be ups and downs
Our lives rarely follow smooth and linear paths. In fact, they sometimes seem to be on shuffle with choice and chance. Development interventions are no different. We may make neat theories of change and logical frameworks. But our interventions still have a life of their own with ups and downs influenced by all kinds of factors and contexts.  The engagement with these contexts and factors and the people living them is what makes our work vibrant and chaotic. It is also what lends it meaning. It is up to us to see how we can adapt, course correct (as needed) and essentially navigate collectively and arrive at our goal posts. It is up to us to garner our learnings along the way so that we can improve our future work (including our own capacities of doing this work).

Realising that there will always be allies and that we have to find them
There are people who believe and want the same things that we do.  There are people who can educate us on how to shape our interventions more effectively. They will bring their unique energies, perspectives and resources. They will help us grow. Sometimes, we may find them in the unlikeliest of places. But as long as we keep our minds and hearts open, we will find them. The fellowship in intentions and actions will help our work take root.

Appreciating that every change – even a small one, even at the level of one individual – is a step forward
The issues we grapple with seem intractable for a reason. If they were that easy, they would have been addressed by now. So, we need to move along the continuum from individual to collective, from internal to external change. Each step counts. Of course, these have to be contextually relevant and strategic steps!

Recognising that influencing institutions is a time taking process
Very often, our projects aim to change institutions within a finite three year period. But we get much less time to do the actual work. We need official clearances and agreements and build working relationships. There are written and unwritten protocols and norms and other rules of this universe that need to be grasped and then used judiciously. People get transferred and we have to start from scratch again. We need to be more realistic. Even then, ultimately, we may still need to settle for some sort of a compromise.  And that is ok. It gives us the scope to continue our work in another way.

Committing to doing my best wherever I am and with whatever I know and have
This has helped me remain focused, especially when I have been at crossroads or in uncertain/’everything seems to be falling apart’ type situations. It matters. It may even turn out to be the example or inspiration that somebody else around us needed. There is certainly no harm in triggering some positive chain reactions!

When the Truth Lies in Between

Many of us pick up a valuable skill at workplace– of being able to hide what we truly mean behind innocent sounding and non threatening words. Anyways, here are some statements that many of us have heard (and understood what they really mean). And yes, I have used some of them too!

  1. We have seen what you shared. It is good. But we do have some inputs.
    (What they really mean) I am ok with it. But my boss thinks that your piece doesn’t reflect his ideas. I am now going to tell you that you need to rewrite it.
  2. So, we have put together a team of advisors who bring in significant expertise and can make sure that we are proceeding in the right direction.
    (What they really mean) All of them are important people. All of them have to be in the team. You will have to listen to all of them. But you have to make sure that this bus doesn’t go off the cliff!
  3. We want a brief report.
    (What they really mean) It should have everything. It should be a summary. It should have the background. It should showcase our achievements and how we did that and our challenges and why we couldn’t overcome them. And make the challenges seem like grounds for more work (and securing funding). It should also have recommendations. It should also be targeted at policy makers. And we are paying you to make this brief.
  4. We are very close to the end of the road on this.
    (What they really mean) No. We are not.  There will be another couple of rounds of feedback and, maybe, then we will be somewhere close to the middle of the road.
  5. We think that you are best suited to make this presentation.
    (What they really mean) Actually, nobody else wants to do this.