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.  

Advertisements

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 Dictionary.com 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!

Staying True

My first boss used to make me rewrite everything. This was at a business daily where I was a part of the features team. Actually, I used to write and then rewrite the copy and then take it to her and then rewrite it again as per her instructions. Sometimes, more revisions followed. Most of my articles had an average rewrite rate of 3. I began to do better in my second year. But, by then, I had become a compulsive rewriter with an innate distrust of the quality of whatever I completed easily and at one go!

While typically laborious and sometimes soul crushing, this habit of rewriting has helped me. I learnt the benefits of returning to what I had written after taking a break and then viewing it with a certain sense of detachment. I could then pare and prune more easily. I could even be ruthless when strict word limits were involved. And even though I didn’t always win, I gradually learnt to speak up for what I felt needed to be communicated. It could be about that crucial string of information that held the piece together, something that captured the personalities of people or an interesting aside that lent more ‘atmosphere’ (or context if you will). I carried all of this into my subsequent work in the development sector. It has been an interesting journey, but also one where writing has sometimes taken a backseat.

And what brought all this up? A few weeks ago, I was asked what I do. Instead of the usual ‘development consultant’, I replied with ‘writer’. In my head, I even added ‘rewriter’! In fact, the universe continued to throw some pretty big signs my way. Last week, watching a ballet performance made me realise the need for unswerving loyalty to who we are and what we love and how that difficult journey can also yield moments of great beauty and life affirming satisfaction that can spread out and touch others as well.
So, it is definitely time to pare and prune other professional commitments and stick to what I love and am – a writer (and rewriter)!

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.

Just Finish It

March 31st marks the end of the financial year for many. It also got me thinking about how a lot of assignments end. Very often, this is what happens.

Stage I: We are all really excited about this!
Someone wants to document the journey, achievements, challenges and learnings that emerged from a programme.  Failures (or, areas of improvement in NGO speak) are added. This last bit involves a certain amount of negotiation. The winning argument – we can say that we need to work on these aspects in the next phase! Anyways, so the team and the consultant hold one or more meetings. Everybody is brimming with ideas, excited and cooperative.

Stage II: Getting into it
The sense of enthusiasm is still palpable as more meetings are held to spell out the specifics, make field plans and other necessary arrangements. There is a deluge of documents. People are eager to share. Sometimes, this initial stage also brings in a sense of the people who inhabit this universe – who all need to be consulted, who will give feedback and, most importantly, who has the final say.

Stage III: The Actual Work
The blood, sweat and tears part starts. Interactions with participants, organisational staff and others occur. New leads emerge. Often, this adds new dimensions and enriches the documentation. Sometimes, this snowballing thing also threatens to snowball out of control! Timelines, costs and other factors have to be considered. After the fieldwork is completed, the consolidation and writing begins. First, draft outlines and then draft documents are shared.

Stage IV:  Close to the Finish Line
When we are really lucky, this stage (finalising with feedback) comes and goes quietly without causing any heartburn. The designated people provide feedback within the designated time frame. Further steps, especially where designing and printing are involved, occur seamlessly. There is more feedback. It is incorporated and we are done.

Stage V: It’s Not Over Yet!
Very often, stage IV begins to expand over space and time. In fact, it takes over our lives. We wait for feedback. Or, after we have incorporated all the feedback, there is more feedback. Or we spot mistakes that need to be corrected. When that is done, more mistakes surface. This is when we just want the assignment to end and to get our lives back. The only consolation are those words that capture a world of wisdom…This too shall pass!

And it usually does. Till it happens again.