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!

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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.

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!

Insights from 2016: The Abridged Version

So, it is the season to be merry. It is also that time when we become  reflective as we look back on the year, on the triumphs and trials, the expected and unexpected. So, what did all the assignments and other professional engagements in 2016 teach me? Here are the highlights!

*We bring all of ourselves to our work, even the parts we are not aware of. It is worthwhile to figure out what these parts are and how they influence our perceptions and performance.

*Being participatory will bring on headaches. But it is absolutely worth it. It will yield benefits that we have not even thought of.  

*Going beyond the ‘quotable quotes’ kind of lines from children and people in publications is difficult. Sometimes, very few even expect you to! But we need to fight this battle too – of ensuring that we present what we hear and experience.

*It is ok to make mistakes and fail. The important thing is to learn from the experience. The more important thing is to be able to apply those learnings (and we can then reach the hallowed lessons learnt stage!)

*Sometimes, a dream runs its course. We or our circumstances change. Or both. Sometimes, it is just time to move on…in a different direction.

*Believe in causes. And professional commitments and deadlines. And self care.

 

Saying Goodbye

A recent cleaning spree in the house revealed a sheath of papers that stopped me in my tracks. It was the report on the last day of fieldwork done in my first year of studying social work years ago. I didn’t know that I had held on to this while cities (and addresses) and phases of life passed by. It took me back to that day. Two of us had been placed with an organisation working with children living in and around a railway station. And on that day, we had planned to buy gifts and snacks and have a little party at a home for children run by the organisation. How we had planned…the interactions with the children and the staffs that day…us being smeared with colours and dragged into some fierce dancing (the next day was Holi and we were possibly infected by that spirit)! But what also stood out, as I read those pages, was this unmistakable sense of sadness (and discomfort) at saying goodbyes.

In fact, the goodbyes were captured in the writing. And those images rose again in front of me. Chatting with the women who cooked and helped at the home and them turning silent when I said we won’t be coming again. Some children refusing to come near us that day. One child in my group work session avoiding to look at me. Overhearing another child telling his peers vehemently – They will never come again. One child, in the end, coming up to shake hands and then smiling shyly and saying – Thank you.

Nothing really prepares us to say goodbye. To any one. In any form. We were student social workers then and possibly had even lesser idea of how to handle gradual disengagement. Even now, after more than a decade in the social work sector, I am not sure if we have a better understanding of how to actually ‘phase out’ of the lives of programme participants in a sensitive and judicious manner. Do we, ourselves, always manage to accept it and prepare for it? Do we ever manage to prepare the other actors involved? Of course, this is a complicated area with emotions, personal and professional relationships, project timelines and budgeted activities (and lack of them after a point!) involved.

My younger student social worker self had stumbled upon one important realisation though – if we accept the intrinsic dignity of an individual, that entails keeping them informed. This includes preparing them (and ourselves) of the prospective transitions- of the equations that should change with time and the eventual goodbye.

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.