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).

 

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Walking with Sorrow

Recently, I got on a van rickshaw after three years. These contraptions (a cycle or a motorcycle attached to a broad wooden plank with additional wheels) are the most common form of transport within many islands of the Sunderbans region in West Bengal (India).  I was here for an assignment. 

As soon as I sat, everything around me went still. Fellow passengers talking to each other, the driver calling out…all of these sights and sounds seemed to recede. I did feel a gust of wind on my face (the monsoons had just made an entry). A strange mix of loss and grief and other feelings that I could not even name washed over me.

Suddenly, I was back in 2014. The family had witnessed my uncle lose his battle with stomach cancer. Then, a friend and another colleague met with a freak road accident while working. They had been travelling on one of these van rickshaws. My friend survived. But her friend did not. I knew her too. We were all the same age, doing the same kind of work. We shared similar hopes and frustrations. It was so unexpected and unbelievable. Then there was another death in the extended family. He was in his early 80s and unwell. Nothing had ever been certain or consistent for him. The last act had followed a similar vein. I was left numb by the cumulative weight of these events.  Grief – present and past – somehow connected and enveloped me.

I was jolted back to the present as the van rickshaw navigated its way past the broken, potholed parts of the roads. 

Walking (and working) with grief had not been easy. But I learnt that it was possible and that we do begin to gradually cohabit with our losses. There were others around me who had been affected even more by these and other senseless tragedies of life.  That was a humbling realisation. I was also struck by the resilience of the human spirit and how it can surprise us with its affinity for hope and tenacity for survival.

I think that year, difficult as it was, also helped me become more self aware. I hope it has made me more attentive to the burdens we bear, the daily skirmishes and bigger fights and their fallouts that mark our lives. In a way, walking with sorrow provided me another route for connecting with others. I think it pushed me forward a few steps in terms of understanding and practising empathy. And that has been a completely unexpected collateral benefit!    

Finding Hope

We live in difficult and dark times marked by a senseless parade of simply incomprehensible levels of violence and death. The struggle against disenchantment and despair is particularly acute for those of us who have chosen to work in the development domain. Encounters with deep rooted inequities, complex webs of vulnerabilities and structural issues are never easy and they rarely fit neatly within the interventions we design. But we have to find our own oasis of hope. For me, the continuing perseverance of countless field level/frontline workers, despite significant odds, is one such source of hope and inspiration.

These women and men bear most of the burden of organisational and programme expectations and deadlines. They are entrusted with ‘making an entry into the communities’, ‘rapport building with various stakeholders’ and ensuring ‘community ownership’. These innocuous sounding words encompass hours of hard work, braving all kinds of reactions (including standing up to resistance and ridicule), changing tactics and doing whatever else is required.  

I have always been struck by the hospitality and willingness to share exhibited by the field level workers that I have met across several states in the country. Recent interactions reaffirmed this. Local realities and dynamics, their own role, gains (big and small) and challenges are shared unvarnished. Their personal journeys with the programmes are no less interesting and insightful.

Of course, just as with everything else, all frontline/field level workers are not the same. There are variations in interest, capacities and contributions. But most of those I have met have always been ready to go the extra mile if it benefits a community member. This sense of commitment is exemplary. It is more awe inspiring when we think of the circumstances in which this commitment is lived. Typically, they occupy the lowest positions in official hierarchies, cope with inadequate salaries and find themselves constantly compromising on family obligations. They have to balance increasing expectations of community members and other participants with the programme mandate and limitations.  Moreover, they have to deal with their own sense of frustration, particularly with intractable challenges that they get to witness on a daily basis.  

Some are lucky and at least find a conducive environment within their organisations. That makes a huge difference. Their commitment then is also reflective of a broader organisational focus and value. Yet, for many, consistent regard and respect for their work (even within their organisations) is an infrequent reality.  

So, if these women and men can still find the strength to continue their work, I can too. Any maybe we need to tell their side of the story more often in our development narratives.

What’s In A Number?

We are surrounded by isms. I had always thought that I was immune to at least one of them – aegism. And then I was proved wrong. And I guess I fell for some other stereotypes too!

I was on an assignment facilitating development of Child Protection Policies for a host of faith based organisations across multiple states in India. This had taken me to a location straddling the borders of New Delhi and Haryana. It was an interesting group of participants encompassing various domains,  levels , backgrounds, experience and educational qualifications. The age range was 17 to more than 60 years. All this was intentional since we hoped to initiate a dialogue on child protection which could travel beyond the usual senior management and head office fixations. It did make my life difficult as I had to ensure that the entire training was in Hindi and participatory, that there were no power points and that people could move collectively as we drafted the organisational policy together.

This varied and very interesting group of participants included women from the local communities who supported self help group and livelihood related initiatives. One of them – fondly called chachi (aunty; the term is used for father’s younger brother’s wife) – was definitely in the 60-70 year range. She was the oldest participant. And she proved to be the most enthusiastic one!

Some of the younger participants (positioned at office and community locations) were quite active, particularly in the group work sessions. I had expected that. But the consistent interest of chachi blew me away. She would push other participants to focus on the task at hand in all the group work exercises. She possibly took down almost every word I spoke!

On the first day, she had been hesitant in asking me when she didn’t understand anything.  Though I encouraged her, she chose to turn to the participants sitting next to her. By days two and three, she was making her opinions abundantly clear including when she was feeling sleepy!  She definitely made our daily feedback sessions more lively and real.

I have always believed that each individual has strengths and capacities and can contribute. But during the workshop, my surprise at her participation made me realise that I had possibly started with a somewhat limited perception of who she was, what she could be interested in and what she could do.  By day four, I stood corrected. And humbled.

What Failure Taught Me

A friend had once remarked – ‘you people in the development sector don’t have failures. Anything goes wrong, you call it learning!’ That sentence has stuck with me. Of course, looking at challenges and failures as learnings has its advantages. It promotes a more positive outlook and provides reference points for improvement in future programming. However, and this has been pointed out by many, do we really ‘learn’ and do we apply what we learn? This lessons learnt business calls for a post of its own. Here, I am going to focus on failures.

Failures in the professional domain come in various shapes and sizes. These range from those that evoke mild disappointment but don’t disrupt our worlds to those that make us doubt our own capacities and paralyse our sense of confidence and self worth. In my initial days as a journalist, many many years ago, I was, very briefly, placed in a particular division where I struggled to deliver. In my own eyes, I was a spectacular failure. In fact, I was surprised by my sudden and completely unexpected incompetence! Thankfully, I was later placed in another division where I felt more at home and did well.

While it hasn’t always been easy, my subsequent work in the development sector has been largely free of such experiences. However, the last few years with multiple assignments and deadlines and a never ending array of personal crises brought added pressure. I defaulted on deadlines – some because I couldn’t manage and some because the universe threw in additional googlies! And a lingering sense of failure set in. I did allow myself to wallow in it a bit and then decided to see what I could do about it, and what I had learnt! So, here are my learnings from failure.

  1. It is ok to fail. A lot of people, including the amazing Rumi, have even stated that broken is beautiful.
  2. It is not ok to let that sense of failure control your life. Or make you question your abilities.
  3. Take charge. See what you can do differently next time. And also make that point unambiguously in the next assignment.
  4. Despite best efforts, things may still go wrong. Just deal with it!
  5. And…as long as you can smile and laugh, it is not that bad.

Every experience does teach us something. Even though we may not see it or feel it, our battle scars do make us stronger and better and unique.

To be (humble) or not to be…That is the question!

People with innate humility seem to be an endangered species. Maybe, they are part of the collateral damage in a world which seems to increasingly equate brash confidence with competence and marketing acumen with real talent and success. Of course, there is a need to have a presence and speak up. This becomes even more pertinent as resources and opportunities grow scarce. And there is that little matter of managing to survive in the food chain! But in all this din, do we really get the chance to know the people we work with? To appreciate the quiet workers or those whose talents are not glaringly obvious? Or even those who are obviously gifted but choose not to broadcast that and do whatever is needed in their own understated way?

I would like to believe that substance matters and that the true ability and character of a person does shine through. Of course, there are often more examples to the contrary and you wonder how certain people got to certain places. Uncharitable jealousy or unaffected curiosity aside, it does irk!

But then I think of the (much smaller) sub set that continues to work despite all these discouraging signs around them. There are people who are clear about what they want, the paths that they take and don’t feel the overwhelming need to draw attention to themselves along the way. It can’t be easy.  But possibly, conviction triumphs.  And that is deeply reaffirming. And inspiring.

On the Road

There is something about journeys by road. My work has provided ample opportunities for such travelling, especially to locations for fieldwork. There have been innumerable fellow passengers and countless conversations. Sometimes, that is when the magic has happened through the bursts of animated discussions interspersed with periods of companionable silence.

Barriers have come down with free flowing conversations. In fact, this is when a lot of that famous ‘subtext’ has revealed itself through the juxtaposition of what had been seen and heard before during stakeholder interactions with the enthusiastic explanations and vehement rebuttals being offered now. Failures have been conceded and learnings (from hindsight) shared. Multistakeholder dynamics have been unpacked, sometimes with generous dollops of, yes, even gossip!

Of course, journeys do come with problems as well. Bad roads don’t exactly help. You can get stuck in traffic jams on highways or other busy locations for hours. Herds have to cross when herds have to cross. You have to hunt for places to eat, discovering some gems and some others that live on in your memory for the wrong reasons. And yes, you hunt for toilets too!

But even with the misadventures, I remain a believer. Very often, the journeys have not only helped me with assignments, but also created beautiful and memorable moments. Stories of personal and professional triumphs and losses have been swapped, common frustrations articulated and bonds forged. It has been about these moments of human connection in a transient world where a lot rushes past us, much like the constantly changing scenes outside the car window.