What Lies Beneath

Qualitative research problematizes the ‘objective’. Can anything be really objective when we view almost everything through the lens of our own perceptions, biases and experiences? Some constructs or labels or distinctions, whatever they are called, are clearly demeaning and discriminatory. We find it easy to identify and rebel against them. But, sometimes, we carry certain other biases and we are not even aware of them, of how they may be implicitly influencing our behaviours. That realisation is disconcerting. It happened to me. My not so glorious moment possibly impacted me more than the other person concerned. But still…

About seven-eight years ago, I found myself in a rural district in Rajasthan. I had come to support an organisation (Bodh Shiksha Samiti) in undertaking process documentation of one of their rural schools. Each day, a different staff with a motorcycle provided transport (from the block office to the village with the school being covered) and background information. That day too, I started with my volley of questions as we made our way through the uneven terrain. The staff hailed from this particular area. So, we talked about local customs and traditions before getting into the crux of the conversation – education. So, how were these schools functioning? How responsive were the communities? Could we actually see any changes in the children – in their education levels as well as overall development? Did children from disadvantaged backgrounds and in remote rural areas need to be taught differently? What worked? What didn’t? Did the pedagogy used and promoted really make a difference?

His answers were direct and honest and thought provoking. I was enjoying the conversation and learning a lot. Then I asked – “What exactly do you do here?” He turned and smiled at me and said – “Main tho driver hoon didi”. (I am the driver didi i.e. sister). Then it hit me. I would possibly have not asked that many questions about the education component if I had known that he was a driver. I also realised that day that just being respectful towards everyone was not enough if I still carried biases that somehow limited my perceptions of what the other person was capable of. I didn’t feel particularly proud of my subjective self that day!

In the years that have followed, prevalence of such moments has reduced…I think. I have tried to get better at initiating a dialogue, to help evolve moments of connection that can possibly be mutually enriching and not merely extractive. And to not underestimate anyone.

All this doesn’t necessarily mean that I have overcome all my biases. I am sure there are many more moments of disconcerting epiphany in store. Well…we live and learn!

Want to be hated? Just Say….You need to fill this format

Call a meeting of field workers or other personnel who are placed lower than you in the official hierarchy. A training will also do. And then say – You have to fill this format. Yep. That is all it takes.

I would know. I have been on the ‘giving’ side and have received strong reactions (verbal and non verbal)! They think it is the old ‘HQ syndrome’ at work again. People sitting in the main office, having little or no knowledge about field realities saddling them with more meaningless paperwork. Or the ‘external consultant who doesn’t really have a clue’ syndrome. Very often, they are not far from the truth.

Besides, I do believe fieldworkers are often underpaid and overburdened. It is even worse for those who are drafted in as ‘volunteers’ and exhorted to do their duty for their communities. (I seriously doubt whether we would ever consider doing so much for our communities!)

But, at the same time, I understand the compulsions of the project management teams. They committed to all these indicators and now must have the data for it. The underlying dynamics (and tensions) between head office and field teams invariably colour perceptions and attitudes on both sides. In such situations, any system (with the related tools/formats) will be followed half heartedly with little or no concrete results.

I don’t know if there are any easy solutions. But it helps to be ruthless. It helps when we anchor ourselves to what is most important and relevant for our intervention and cut out the rest. What information can we source from others and what do we need to collect ourselves? What is the most efficient and effective way of doing it? Do we really need all the details all the time?

I always agonise over this last question. As a process documentation person, my instinctive urge is to say yes…capture everything that you can. But with experience (and strong reactions!) has come wisdom. I now choose to work with the teams involved and see what can be done practically keeping in mind the sanctioned proposal and logframe and expectations from M&E and process documentation. I have to play facilitator/mediator/ devil’s advocate. It can be exhausting and I don’t know if I always get it right. I am on a learning curve myself here and fortunately there are others who are also in it for the same reasons. But most importantly, we begin with a system that has a fighting chance for survival. And if we get it right, it may even last beyond the current M&E officer and the next one!