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?

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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.

The F Word

I am talking about FEEDBACK. We live in suspense till we get it. And then when we get it, we are not always sure what to do with it! Yep…this is going to be a rant!!!

As a matter of principle, I have nothing against Feedback. In fact, in our development sector, feedback becomes even more important as we aspire to be participatory and contextual. So we should welcome, or rather, consciously seek feedback from contracting agencies/NGOs as well as key stakeholders involved in a particular assignment. We may get points that we hadn’t thought of. We may be challenged in our understanding and practice. This is good. This is needed. I am all for it.

But then, some people also turn feedback into a time consuming/whimsical/irrational/ “I am so great you need to listen to me” exercise. Take your pick. I am sure you would have experienced one or more of these scenarios. Sometimes, and this does happen, these scenarios even merge into one experience. It is like the Theatre of the Absurd. I never fully understood that when I was studying it in literature and now I do. Talk about collateral benefit!

Still, if we do manage to handle the stress and our temper and not lose our jobs, we may end up learning something. Like patience and diplomacy. Even improve our work related skills. What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger, right?

She Writes Minutes and Donor Reports

Different people understand documentation differently. But there seems to be a consensus on the basic expectations from a person designated for the documentation role – writing minutes and donor reports. Of course, I have come across organisations that have a fuller understanding of the scope and purpose of the documentation role. But they are in a minority.

Before I go any further, let me say that I have nothing against writing minutes and donor reports. We must record our meetings. That is common sense. And, of course, we have to write reports for donors. It will also help ensure that we continue to have donors! But the problem is that the documentation person is forced to write minutes for every meeting that he (or more often she) attends. Sometimes, he/she is asked to come to a meeting only because we need someone to write the minutes. We seem to believe, rather conveniently, that only the documentation person can write minutes!

And when he/she is not writing minutes, he/she should definitely be writing donor reports. It doesn’t matter if you get the data at the last minute. Sometimes, it won’t even add up. The documentation person is supposed to have magical powers of making everything come together in a coherent whole. And yes, also do some creative writing and throw in some learnings and challenges for good measure!

But there is so much more that a documentation person can do. He/she should really be helping to develop a documentation plan for the project/programme and then follow that. Develop a list of possible documentation outputs (yes, donor reports can be seen as an important part of that list!). Ensure that he/she and others in the team use standardised formats to collect information for case studies, events etc. Write all kinds of stuff. Publish some.

Documentation can, and should be, interesting and fun. That is why some of us choose to do this job in the first place. Let us hope the powers that be also realise this truth as well!