The Ten Year Itch

I have had the amazing fortune of undertaking process documentation of multiple initiatives spanning 10 years. I have even done this for initiatives that covered 20 years and are still continuing. Most of these were primarily focused on child protection while a few centred on education. The two 20 year old initiatives were particularly unique since these also marked the journey from birth to adulthood (in a way!) of an organisation and a division of an organisation respectively. Nonetheless, each of these initiatives allowed me to engage with and reflect on the complex, organic and often unexpected trajectories of development interventions.

Typically, all of these initiatives began with the passionate commitment of some people. These people – and they were located across implementing organisations, participants (community members) and donors – recognised the relevance and value of what was being considered. It resonated with them for various reasons. They came on board and backed the idea. This idea would grow into a concept note and then a proposal and then a project. Or sometimes not. It might have just taken roots and begun to grow while these tools of development interventions came in later.

In any case, a core group of enthusiasts planned and implemented actions. Each frustration and thwarted effort was keenly felt and met with redoubled efforts. Each positive milestone brought a sense of solidarity and shared joy. This initial phase of intense engagement would then give way to the next one.

The teams involved could now  bank on some years of experience and insights. The project proposals gradually started becoming more refined and the indicators more sharply defined. The work may have also expanded organically in terms of themes and areas. Meanwhile, the organisations would have grown into larger entities with a more substantive array of projects and programmes (and with related worries of covering salaries and administrative costs!) The connections to this initiative, even when considered pioneering, might  have begun to grow loose. The participants – whether in the communities or other stakeholders – would have also gradually become aware of some sense of detachment or even distance with the implementing organisation. The staff at the ground level, of course, would have to continue their work. (And the new staff would often be told by participants that the previous set were better!) This is not to say that the initiative would have lost its relevance and effect. Even with every twist and turn, countless lives would have been touched in myriad ways. But somewhere, that organic sense of attachment and ownership may have begun to dim.

And then, at some point, the top management might experience a desire to look back. It could be to celebrate that milestone of 10 or 20 years. It could be the need to document this unique journey for organisational memory and also to inform the next stage of planning. It could be, and this often a key reason, an interest to consolidate the work and showcase it as a replicable model. And then suddenly, we are all back to pouring our time and energies on to this initiative.

I am not saying that all long terms initiatives fit this template. But many do. Also, maintaining growth of organisations and balancing reflective attention on multiple initiatives is a very real and undisputable challenge. There are a host of other internal and external factors as well that cast an influence. Changing priorities, often linked to donor requirements, do not always help either, especially if we do not plan to see how the gains can be deepened and continued. For me, it is most problematic when we gradually begin to lose sight of the people and children that we work for and with. The rights based approach and participation and sustainable development become words that are not lived fully.

At the same time, there is much that evokes hope. Long term initiatives provide unique opportunities to establish partnerships and engage in journeys of mutual growth. These ties, even when they grow weak with time for some, are still something else. The recollections of the past and reflections on the present might be tinged with frustrations. Yet, they still do strengthen that collective history of initiative and, more fundamentally, that common foundation of hopes and aspirations. For me, it is always humbling to be privy to such moments.

Moreover, the incremental effects add up to bigger and more significant changes. These become very visible and evocative acknowledgements of the fact that change, especially when dealing with deeply entrenched and complex issues, cannot happen overnight. It requires successful strategizing as well as modifications and some degree of trial and errors. And it is ok to fail too. It is all a part of the journey (and all parts that must be documented too).

 

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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?

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.  

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!

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!