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.


First stage: gone!

Done. Gone. Finito. The initial stage of the capacity building piece of work I’ve been carrying out in Guatemala the last months is over. I can recall each day but I’m also shocked: time flies! It was almost yesterday that I contacted the partner to discuss the details of the terms of reference, agree on main learning aims and plan the logistics for this one-year initiative. We’ve discussed long and wide the 12 months to build capacity on Participatory Video for Monitoring and Evaluation. And now I’m back home after delivering the first stage with my colleagues. Time really flies.

In this initiative we mainly focus on building capacity of 12 trainees, adolescent girl community leaders in charge of girl groups, and two staff of the country office of the INGO partner. Over four stages of training and fieldwork throughout the year, the trainees learn and experiment with Participatory Video (PV) and Most Significant Change (MSC), a participatory M&E tool based on storytelling. The whole process is based on experiential learning with a strong participatory ethos.

Now that I’m back, I’ve been dedicating some good time to reflect, report and share learning with the team. I would say that the key components we’ve been working on with the girls are group bonding, facilitation, PV (including participatory editing) and MSC.

So what went well and what didn’t?

It went well:

On the partner’s front…

  • Thorough process to select the right trainees, conducted by the country office.
  • Coordination and logistics by the partner in place! (it’s sounds obvious, but I founded myself before in deep waters linked to this issue)
  • Belief in participatory ethos (don’t take this one for granted either)
  • Incorporating PV MSC helped establish the ground for the trainees to better understand the partner structure as an NGO and the operating system
  • The cascading leadership system they use in girl programming was in action and at service during fieldwork! Mentors supporting girl leaders, interns visiting other interns in neighbouring community to “see what’s going on”, girl leaders supporting girl participants from other communities.
  • They’ve supported the trainees in planning a big well-deserved party to celebrate so many achievements.

On the trainers front…

  • We had a detailed content plan, that we revised each day, but that we also changed depending on the trainees’ needs. This was the only way to ensure the games & exercises were creating the right group dynamic, they had a clear purpose and timing. If you get this right, and give clear instructions, then the magic flows…
  • Visualise everything! Experiential learning is really powerful, but it can also leave the participant feeling fearful of not remembering what they’ve learnt. Well, we took the “visualising” business seriously, so after a month of training the trainees produced more than the needed material to cover all the wall of the workshop space, and realised that way how much they have learnt.
  • Taking the trainees out of their comfort zones. In this workshop, this meant taking them to the streets, to interact with strangers. For indigenous adolescent girls it’s difficult to interact in the streets of a city in a country highly divided by class and ethnicity. It wasn’t easy the first time, but the last day they all remembered the experiences in the street, acknowledged the effect it had on them and felt proud for overcoming their fears.
  • Changing teams after some weeks to refresh the dynamics and bonding
  • Good to set an iterative process for action planning using always the same tool. They took the tool, they re-created it, and by the end of the workshop they’ve owned it. They now feel confident on how to plan and organise themselves in the teams before fieldwork.
  • Building collectively the MSC structure for collection and selection, with the trainees own words, as well as the meanings the trainees wanted to attribute to each domain.
  • Using drama to create another PV after collecting testimonies made a huge difference to the collective process of discussion and expressing views on difficult issues like sexual education, and the community participants had great fun!
  • Sampling with an easy method but ensuring rigour

On the trainees front…

  • They’ve incorporated the adults easily to the team (2 staff of the partner, 3 trainers and 1 donor staff visiting). They’ve even told the donor rep that he was like “another girl”.
  • Overcoming feeling homesick after a long period away from home.
  • Overcoming normal teenage tensions in the group and grasping the concept “each one teach one” as a natural thing, creating equal relations with their peers and learning from each other.
  • Great sense of responsibility! They practised every night before fieldwork, on their own, without telling us.
  • They organised themselves easily in roles per team and were flexible enough to improvise in the field, if needed.
  • Supporting each other during fieldwork, and taking decisions independently. (We were there to support them, but with complete hands off the process.)

It didn’t go so well:

  • Having PAL cameras in NTSC land for the first days! (Yes, we did check all the equipment beforehand, but for some crazy reason the distributor sent us PAL although we ordered NTSC). Next time: Triple or quadruple check!
  • The facilitation concept was too abstract in the initial week, it needs time to evolve and experience it. We should have also facilitated an MSC process with them as participants. Being a participant is essential to then facilitate.
  • Deciding to carry out the pilot MSC on the trainees themselves instead of on staff. It was difficult for them to facilitate the process on each other, although they had really powerful stories to share (as they are all beneficiaries as well)
  • Language limitations: speaking the national language but not the trainees mother tongues. The group included girls from 4 different linguistic regions of the country.
  • It was difficult to ask probing questions in the MSC collection and interview process. Note to the self: we need more games to make it easier.
  • We were embedded in a culture of strong gossiping trying to make people tell difficult stories about themselves! Not a really good environment for that. How to create a space of trust? Next time: less people in the room and the location appropriate for building a safe space.
  • The domains didn’t work really well. Giving people a topic to discuss stories of change sometimes can hinder the real stories or confuse people on abstract concepts. During post-training assignments trainees will shift to ask a general MSC question and we will all then tag the stories into domains (based on grounded theory).
  • Consent procedure: way too complex, too many steps. Next time: a different process for testimony and for drama participation, to make it easier for the trainees as well as for the participants.
  • Underestimating the influence of the political background: the partner worked closely with local leaders to prepare fieldwork, but we were there during country elections and this played a role. In one of the communities, a leader hijacked part of the final selection process to fulfil her personal political agenda, creating a tense environment for the trainees.
  • Add to the previous point: not having enough time to screen all the rushes in the first visit, gave space for that leader to manipulate a few members of the community into her discourse. Next time: Always make time for screening everything they’ve filmed. That will avoid confusion.
  • Last, but not least, delaying the signature of MoU, ToR and contract meant that the transfer of money to the country office was delayed. Next time: Don’t diminish internal politics in INGOs

Now off to bed. Stay tuned as I’ll keep posting reflections…