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.

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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 Top Five … Reactions to being a Consultant

Here’s a list of another kind – the top five statements that I get to hear the most.

Number 5:  You don’t have to report to anybody!
This is partly correct. Yes, I am my own boss. But then things like nodal/contact persons, seniors (“we have to consult them you know”) and feedback exist. Let’s just say…it is complicated!

Number 4: You don’t have to do that 9-5 thing.
I am happy about this. But then, on the flipside, distinctions between day and night and weekdays and weekends and holidays and other days can get blurred very easily while chasing deadlines. Moreover, there are expectations that, as a consultant, you will manage to deliver on time no matter what! “The world is on a seven day break. But then we had agreed on that date for finalising this. Remember?” And then you kick yourself for being a conscientious professional and not slipping in 1-2 days of leeway (and recovery from holiday) time!

Number 3: You can choose what you want to do.
Our lives are a curious mix of choices and chances and compulsions. Being a consultant doesn’t change that completely. So, there are some assignments you do because you want to and some because you have to.

Number 2: Don’t you miss working in an office, having colleagues and all that?
As a consultant, you work closely with various teams across organisations and locations. So, the scope for meaningful interactions is always present. You can also hear all the office gossip without really being affected by it (unless it directly concerns you)! Of course, there are no official support structures and systems to always fall back on. So, there are pluses and minuses (including numbers 3-5). Anyways, it has worked for me for the last 8-9 years.

And the Number 1: So, what do you do exactly?
To be fair, just saying ‘consultant’ probably does not make much sense. But then in my case adding the words ‘process documentation and knowledge management’ doesn’t usually help either! And then – ‘for the development sector’ does the rest! Some smile knowingly and desist. The more hardy and curious kinds ask more questions. I guess that is social work too…clarifying about social work!

Me and My Work

So, I had read of this exercise where you think of something and see what words come into your mind. I was possibly subjected to something like this in college by my room mate who was studying psychology (I served as the de facto subject for countless experiments). I was curious to know what I would come up with regarding process documentation. And here are the results – the words that tumbled forth in an unplanned and unapologetic manner!

Enriching
Entertaining
People
Travel
Stories
Words
Reports
Publications
Insights
Empathy
Joys
Challenges
Humane
Development
Writer

Go on…give this a try! The results may surprise you as well.

 

 

 

 

It’s Complicated

The channel Comedy Central provides these FRIENDLY FACTS about the unfailingly popular sitcom FRIENDS. One of these caught my attention. The writers used to make pie charts to track the number of lines (and jokes) that each of the central characters got to say. This was their way of ensuring that Ross, Monica, Joey, Chandler and Phoebe got equal footage. It must have been challenging ensuring that all of these characters were etched properly with their own distinctive personalities and idiosyncrasies, that they could have their own tracks and also come together in a harmonious way. But I guess their efforts did pay off! Multistarrers are never easy. And this is true of process documentation narratives as well where we have a host of key actors who must be given their due space!

So, you are capturing an intervention involving multiple organisations. Typically, the amount of information that is available or can be easily sourced from these organisations would vary. One will encounter an entire range from eager sharers to reticent responders. Besides, it is not just about obtaining adequate information but also ensuring adequate representation. After all, each of these organisations – in their own way – must have played a part. For the process documentation narrative to be anchored to contextual realities (including the diversities), it must capture all of this as far as possible.

It is complicated and I don’t know if there are any easy solutions. But yes, recognising the importance of providing each actor his/her space in the narrative is a good starting point. I will (hopefully) get better at this with practice. Meanwhile, I think that team of writers at FRIENDS was on to a good thing!

These Are A Few of My Favourite…Posts

Now as I try to return to the practice of blogging, I couldn’t help but look back at what I had posted so far. There are some posts that I really enjoyed writing. In fact, the experiences referred to have stayed with me. So, without further ado, here are three of my favourite posts.

Playing Detective

What My Pishi Taught Me

A Shiny Piece of Plastic

Far Braver Than Me

I met Salma while doing an assignment on identifying good practices across the rescue to the reintegration spectrum linked with countering cross border trafficking of children between West Bengal, India and Bangladesh and Nepal. This was under the Missing Child Alert project led by Plan India (for India) with a non government organisation Child in Need Institute (CINI)facilitating actions in West Bengal. A project partner in the state, Socio Legal Aid and Research Training Centre (SLARTC) had shared information about Salma and her younger sister Noorie. Noorie had been trafficked to Bangladesh earlier. She was brought back within a couple of months. An attempt had been made on Salma as well (this was possibly inter country trafficking). Both sisters had also participated in a workshop on creating comics that present key messages on countering child trafficking. Finally, Noorie couldn’t make it for the interview and Salma was there.

Salma appeared to be one of the calm and quiet ones.  A measured speaker. I began with some polite conversation. General remarks about her village, asking about her school and family. Then, I tried to ease into the main subject – her current circumstances, support received by her family from the local community, non government organisation and other stakeholders. I told Salma why I was meeting her – i.e. to learn from child survivors of trafficking about the kind of supports that were most effective for them, activities or strategies that we could recommend for other NGOs and development actors to adopt and feedback on the comics workshop.  I told her that, if she wished, her name would not appear in print.

There was now a pause in the conversation. Staff from the partner organisation jumped in to provide more information to the girl, to make her feel more comfortable. I had thought of all these lines that I would say. But these words just came out on their own – “I know that our conversation may remind you of painful experiences in the past. But we will not talk about that. We know that you want to look ahead, to build a good and secure future for yourself. We just need to know how you are doing now, who is helping you and what happened at that workshop and any suggestions that you have for improving such workshops.” Her eyes became misty. But her voice remained even – “You can ask me anything you want.”  

We talked about her present, how her younger sister was doing and their hopes for the future. She had enjoyed the comics workshop. He voice became more animated as she declared – “I have suffered. We (my family) have suffered and we know. People usually react after something happens. What good is that? All the children should know about these things. You should try and put these messages in our school and madrasa books.” She also spoke about a recent incident when she slapped one of a group of boys who were harassing her. Her maternal aunt had also been with her then. The two had merely been walking down a street.  The aunt too had hit one of the boys. I asked – “Weren’t you scared? What if the boys had hit back or they could so something later?”  The instant response – “How long can you live in fear? I will face whatever happens.”

It was humbling to meet her. I may be a lot of things. But I don’t think I am as brave as her.