To facilitate or not to facilitate…

The third stage of the Participatory Video for Monitoring & Evaluation capacity building process that I’ve been working on in Guatemala has come to an end. After completing stages 1 and 2 (see this and this other posts respectively on those stages) focusing on monitoring girl programming, stage 3 was focused on carrying out a participatory evaluation analysing all the stories of change, collected using PV MSC: Participatory Video combined with the Most Significant Change storytelling method.

These days have been a great time to work on the fine line of when to be actively facilitating and when to have complete hands off the process. It’s been a time to let the trainees go and fly by themselves, while finishing the capacity building process that we’ve started in August 2011.

The girls have made a big progress in both Participatory Video & facilitation skills as much as in critical thinking. The initial days have lend themselves to be a process adjusted to their rhythm with an analysis structure that was simple, repetitive and that merged individual and collective thinking, going deeper in each day.

Watching – reflecting – filming has been the other key to success. Films prompted ideas, and through active facilitation we supported them to think how and why social change happens. This process harvested learning to create films about it. After screenings, the trainees discussed about the films to make sure that all the results and information were well represented. Re-shooting also deepen their space for thinking about those ideas.

Our role was primarily to give trainees structure, but lose enough to let them make sense of their ideas. They defined concepts, enablers and disablers of change. They dramatised how change happens and then incorporated other stakeholders in the process: beneficiaries & staff.

The process of facilitating others to respond to films followed the same flow: watching – reflecting – filming. That was 100% facilitated by trainees, without any support from us. They managed to connect with the groups, facilitate with great skill the complete process independently and ask difficult questions in a soft and natural way. The groups enjoyed the process and gave their best in their response dramas.

Finally… How to present all in a coherently way, in their own words? Beyond the dramas created by each group and the analysis dramas built up by the trainees, a complete video report was essential for any outsider to make sense and see it as a rigorous process that included triangulation and participation of diverse groups in the sample. The girl leaders created a video report including a description of the participatory evaluation process and a summary of the main findings.

Clearly hands off was the best way to build up their confidence and let them grow as facilitators. Now, they are ready to fly on their own.

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Oh dear: Are we already in Stage 3?

Yes. Crazily enough, time has gone extremely quickly once again. I’m in Antigua Guatemala, for the third time. And I didn’t even have the chance yet to absorb that half of the project was finished last year!

So many things have happened since the last time I was able to sit and write about it in this blog. The Participatory Video for Monitoring & Evaluation project that I’ve been working on had advanced the capacity building process in Stage 2, last November, and also finished its monitoring of girl programming. We are now starting the participatory evaluation at country level and the sustainability plans for incorporating the tool in the regular M&E life cycle of the partner organisation.

What have we learnt so far? Well, below are some key things that we’ve achieved and faced in Stage 2.

What went well:

  • Team work: the group cohesion increased and the trainees are able to perform as members of functional groups.
  • Critical thinking: trainees were able to identify issues linked the MSC stories filmed, tagging them into domains with ease.
  • PV MSC process: The method and process required for collection and selection is clear for the trainees, who are able to perform independently of the trainers.
  • Local staff assigned to the project: Great support of the staff assigned to the project was essential to accompany the trainees’ evolution during post-training assignment 1 (PTA1) and Stage 2.
  • Logistics: The logistics for PTA1 and Stage 2 were both satisfactory thanks to the high level organisation done by the M&E coordinator from the partner organisation.
  • Documentary makers visit: The visit and exchange with a filmmaker and his crew, who was commissioned with the production of a documentary for the UN fund to prevent gender-based violence, was an interesting and positive experience for the trainees, who not only were at ease while being filmed and interviewed, but who also pointed out their cameras to interview the filmmaker!
  • Audiovisual skills: trainees harnessed their skills, incorporating understanding on the importance of diversity of images and sound and video language.
  • Online platforms: Trainees learnt how to use Vimeo and upload videos into their channel; created a facebook account and joined a secret group to exchange photos and comments in a safe space; opened a gmail account and join a google group created for the initiative to easily write to all those involved in it.
  • Editing skills: Trainees sharpened their editing skills with advanced sound and titles skills, as well as being able to export videos for DVDs, internet and full quality. They also learnt how to do dubbing from Spanish into their mother tongues, adding up to their existing skills of subtitling, and how to burn DVDs with another piece of software.
  • Girl-to-Girl exchange: Trainees re-connected with the trainees in a similar project in Uganda and had a conversation through skype, discussing about their process, what they liked so far and what they’ve found difficult.
  • Celebration: The last day, the partner organised a dinner to close Stage 2 and the trainees planned surprises. It included fun, laughter and a deep moment exchanging gifts and messages.

What didn’t go so well:

  • Shifting power relations: The girl mentors had difficulties accepting the new role of the girl trainees, not only being now girl leaders but also acting as facilitators of PV MSC, and the new status that this role gives them in the programme. The partner staff is aware of the reactions and are following up closely the process of the girl mentors as well as supporting fully the trainees.
  • Busy time: November was a busy time for staff, having many activities to attend and support in the same two weeks, which stretched them and reduced their attention to Stage 2. Nevertheless, the M&E Coordinator was available and following up closely the delivery, participating as much as it was in his capacity, while also coordinating the logistics. The intern to this initiative was supporting us during the whole workshop.
  • MSC collection: Less girl participants than predicted attended the MSC collection. Instead of having three groups we had to re-organise the teams and create two groups to collect stories of change. One group included alumni and current girl mentors. The second group included 13-17 girl club participants. The re-organisation of the trainees caused some confusion and clashing of their planned roles. Nevertheless, trainees performed well and girl participants enjoyed the process.
  • Jealousy: The trainees felt jealous and tense when they had to share their space with the 13-17 girl participants. The trainers and staff had a deep conversation in which trainees were able to appreciate their new role and the importance of being inclusive and supportive of all the girls they have to work with.

The pearl: Trainees giving their impressions of the NGO world

One memorable moment in Stage 2 was the trainees representing diverse stakeholders that influence the programme and they want to influence through the videos. Some tough words were said about governments and corporates, but the one actor that was perceived by them as a “sympathetic friend” that would empathize with their cause was the development sector. Just to remind the readers, these are 16 to 25 year-old strong young women and leaders in their communities, coordinating girl clubs and now becoming PV M&E facilitators. They described us (and when I mean us, I include anyone working in the development and aid world) as people with willingness to support and help from the heart, thoughtful, emotional, and with eagerness to create new projects to improve the lives of young girls.

I leave it to you to digest that image and try to think if we fulfil their expectations…


Peer coaching: is that something we can interest you in?

Don’t miss this chance of having a say on a great service to overcome isolation in international development: peer mentoring.

This is a blog originally posted by Shana Montesol Johnson in WhyDev.org. I’m re-publishing by request of the author and WhyDev.

The problem: isolation

If you have worked in international development, you have probably experienced isolation. It seems to be a fact of life in this industry. Field-based expat staff may be the only person at their level in their local office, or the only expat on the team (or one of very few), separated from their local staff counterparts by cultural, language, and organisational barriers. Even people working in the home office may feel isolated. Perhaps they don’t feel comfortable sharing their struggles with their boss.  Or maybe the boss him/herself is the problem.

Many people working in aid and development tend to spend a lot of time talking about work with their spouses, partners, or close friends.  This can be a great source of support.  However, it can also put undue pressure on the person who is getting an earful.  Over time, they may tire of hearing the same complaints.  Someone who doesn’t work with you – or work in development – may not “get” your work context.  And a spouse will likely have a hard time remaining neutral and impartial because they have a stake in their partner’s career success.

In situations of isolation, it’s great to work one-on-one with a professional coach or mentor. However, this is not always possible, practical, or financially feasible.  An alternative that works well is peer coaching.

What is peer coaching?

A peer coach is someone who is at a similar level to you in your organisation (or even in another organisation).  He or she knows and/or understands your work context. While not trained as a coach, he or she is willing to coach you according to a simple (yet effective) peer coaching model. This involves actively listening without judgment, reflecting back what he/she is hearing, asking probing questions, and helping you generate concrete action steps to move you forward.

Peer coaching is different than mentoring or advising. It is not based on the premise that your peer coach knows better or is more experienced than you. A peer coach’s job is not to give you advice or tell you what they think you should do. A peer coach’s role is to listen, to provide a sounding board, and help you find the answers yourself.

Whether you are studying, beginning your career in aid and development, or a seasoned professional, it’s great to work one-on-one with a coach who can help you identify blind spots, gain clarity on your priorities, and help you design actions that will bring about desired changes. This what Cassie and Leanne have established:

Cassie and Leanne (names and details have been changed) both work as managers in an international development NGO. Cassie is based in Nepal, and Leanne is in Bangladesh. As expat staff, the only other non-local in their offices are their bosses — and sometimes they don’t feel comfortable sharing all their struggles with their supervisors. Cassie and Leanne  met at an internal training that brought together international staff from various country offices. Since their organisation does not offer executive coaching to staff at their level, Cassie and Leanne decided to team up to provide peer coaching to each other.

They conduct their coaching sessions via Skype. They take turns sharing what’s on their minds, and providing coaching/feedback. They cover a range of topics, whatever is pressing: tough decisions, managing a difficult relationship with a boss/staff member, tricky cross-cultural issues, musings about career moves.

Leanne reports that one of the main benefits of peer coaching is simply the opportunity to think out loud. By talking through a problem or challenge, she ends up coming up with a solution that hadn’t even occurred to her before the peer coaching session.

Cassie values the opportunity to vent, share, and trouble-shoot with someone who understands where she is coming from. Since they have similar roles in different parts of the same organisation, the two women don’t have to explain all the details of their respective situations.

They admit that they could benefit from scheduling their peer coaching calls more regularly. Sometimes their jam-packed work schedules mean that several weeks go by between peer coaching sessions. But they also know that if a crisis comes up, or a decision needs to be made, they can set up a last-minute call and have a thinking session when it’s most needed.

Find a peer coach

We are excited to announce that, through a collaboration between whydev and Development Crossroads, we are launching a peer coaching matching service. We believe that young professionals, graduate students, and others starting out in international development could benefit from peer coaching. We want to develop a service that best matches up with your needs, and supports your peer coaching relationship. We also want to know if you would actually use such a service!

We are still in the design phase, and would like to use this opportunity to get your thoughts through the online survey below. Would you want a peer coach? What would you like to get out of such a relationship? How often would you keep in touch? How much input and oversight would you want from us? These are the type of questions we would love to get your thoughts on.

Please take 2 minutes to complete the survey, and you are more than welcome to provide feedback in the comments below.

Peer coaching survey

Click HERE to complete the survey.


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…


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.