On listening to learn (or unlearn)

J., in Tales From The Hood, had come up with a great idea: the Aid Blog Forum. The second forum that was opened last week is focused on Admitting Aid Failure. I’ve written this post after being tempted to participate.

As you might have read here, I’ve just come out from a reflection process on the work I’ve been doing the last months. The project I’m working on is helping build capacity in Participatory Video & Most Significant Change for M&E, training girl leaders to become facilitators and supporting the partner to learn from those who really know what works and what doesn’t in girl programming: the girls and those around them.

One of the questions that J. posed for the forum was “Once failure has been admitted, then what?” Well, I think once admitting failure happened, we’ve already passed the most difficult part. The “then what?” has the nice part of the process: learning! My organisation has a motto: Mistakes are great! Making mistakes during the trainings is “compulsory” for participants, so we have more chances to learn as a group. We make sure that everyone celebrates every time we acknowledge a mistake and learn from it. The more mistakes you make, the better for the group!

But, why is sometimes so difficult for us to learn? And when I say “us”, I mean people as well as organisations. As the Barefoot Guide to learning practices in organisations and social change reminds us, learning sometimes it’s about unlearning.

“The problem is what you already know or what you are used to doing that you may need to unlearn.” (p.14)

Once we are aware of the fact that we many times make mistakes based on our pre-existent knowledge, and take a conscious decision to do something about it, then it’s pretty important to open our eyes and ears to those who know better than us: the beneficiaries. (Note: I hate this word, but unfortunately there is not a good one to use. I mainly mean those who are the protagonist in the story, those who live in whatever difficult condition we are trying to intervene in).

We have many tools to listen. Particularly, letting people participate and commit to “substantial participation”, as the Barefoot Guide says. Substantial participation includes deciding together, acting together and supporting beneficiaries decision-making. Participatory Communication can help us create those channels to listen to those who know better.

Barefoot Guide to learning practices in organisations and social change, p. 94

But once we’ve listened, we have a duty to respond. That’s where I guess lies “downward accountability”. And of course we are part of an aid system that doesn’t make our life as aid & development workers easy, but that shouldn’t be an excuse not to respond. I had the pleasure to meet a fantastic group of people in a reflection process called “How wide are the ripples“, part of a research project from IKM Emergent. We dedicated two full days in march 2010 to explore how wide were the ripples of participatory-generated information from the local level into organisational learning of INGOs. We then had the chance to meet again in October to write together about our common reflections. This ended up in the PLA 63  (available free to download), that includes participatory communication practices; making sense, the dynamics of interpretation & use of outputs; learning in organisations; and structures, mechanisms and spaces, looking at types of organisational systems and structures which can support bottom-up learning. I hope you can take some time to read it, it’s worth every page!

Once failure has been admitted, then what? Then listen, learn (or unlearn) and respond.

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