Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic and Misfit: A review

I had the pleasure of knowing about the launch of J.’s second book, M4 (Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic and Misfit), well in advance of it becoming available to the public. So I was eager to get a copy for a long time, which I did the very first night it was available on Kindle. Oh, such a nice feeling to see it in my screen!

Let me start this review by saying that M4 is, more than anything, an excellent piece of literature. It is a great contribution to humanitarian fiction. It flows, it really does. No effort to go back to it every now and then while on deployment. Despite my mind being like a waterfall with a myriad thoughts competing for my attention before I went to sleep every night, the book caught my full attention every time I turned on my Kindle in bed.

The book is light enough to be considered a recreational read, but is actually a great example of edutainment. In that, it strikes a balance that is hard to achieve in my view. It is not easy to make the reader ‘enjoy the ride’ while also help them to think deeper about how they work, the challenges they face as an aid worker, and reflect on the big picture for the aid industry as a whole. M4 does all of that. Plus it makes you giggle from time to time with small colourful scenes here and there.

Getting down to its core, the book provides a great platform to analyse the contradictions of the aid industry. It shows how the ’good intentions‘ of some, the hard work of others, and the typical ’business as usual‘ approach of many more – are all happening at the same time in parallel in the industry. The unavoidable ‘expat versus local’ power dynamic is laid bare in crystal clarity by the book. The pressure for money and organisational success which, sceptre-like, seems to haunt us all and holds us in a grip from which it seems there can be no redemption, is a topic that is also treated deftly by the book.

It struck me how the book presents ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of the aid industry without ever adopting a cynical perspective, and merely acts as an observer of a complex picture.

I think M4 is essential reading, especially for donors looking to learn and better understand the dynamics of the aid industry from the aid worker’s perspective, particularly at this time when ‘aid effectiveness’ is on everyone’s agenda.

The book gives a much more ‘real’ picture of the aid industry compared to J.’s first book, Disastrous Passion, especially in terms of the decisions and trade-offs that professional aid workers have to routinely make to survive in the industry’s harsh environment. It points towards an answer to the question  – Who benefits from the aid industry? –that can help us all to reflect upon the real consequences of our decisions for those we are supposed to serve.

Anyway, you really have to read this one. Whether you are a student, aid worker in ‘the field’ or HQ based, expat or local, donor, freelance consultant or researcher, this book will make you have fun while simultaneously supporting you to reflect deeply on the dynamics of the aid industry affecting you and your work. So get your copy and share your views in the comments section. Enjoy the ride!


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.

New blog, new path? Random thoughts on why I am starting this blog…

I’ve finally done it. After thinking it for way too long, I’ve embarked on creating my second blog (breathing deeply, with relief). Well this time it took me longer to get started as I wanted to jump into another genre. This time I’ll blog about my work, about participatory communication in international development. About participatory video as a baking powder for change.

My first experience as a blogger was at Sun in the UK. I wrote mainly in Spanish about my experiences living in a different country, adapting to a different culture and mainly to connect with my friends back home. That writing was in the travel genre and semi autobiographical and for a reduced audience, it gave me space to reflect on myself and the changes undergoing in my life.

On that premise, I thought a new blog linked to my work was going to give me this reflection space once again. This time starting the blog from another country. Guatemala instead of the UK. This time wanting to share my (contradictory) thoughts and feelings about planning, managing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating projects with a participatory video component. Let’s see if the good weather brings the sun back to my writer self.